A Day's Work

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Dec 2002 / a day's work :: email this story to a friend

Higher Purpose
By Amanda E. Doyle

How's this for the beginnings of a business plan?

Marcus Watson, then a young college student majoring in accounting, was driving home from his mom's house one night when he stopped for a red light at the intersection of Manchester and Tower Grove avenues. His attention was drawn sharply to the building on his right, a little corner storefront that sat unused.

"The spirit of the ancestors was so strong, it just hit me and wouldn't let go," he remembers.

That was nine years ago, and the business he established — Ujamaa Maktaba — still sits on that corner, despite many entreaties from various quarters to move his business elsewhere.

Ujamaa Maktaba "We are here because we couldn't afford anything else at the beginning," Watson says. "After that, even though we've managed to survive and do pretty well in the years since then, why shouldn't we stay here in the community, close to where the African American community is centered?"

Ujamaa Maktaba is a bookstore focused on African American life, and stocks works as diverse as "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," (which Watson read while enrolled at Fontbonne College, and which inspired his decision to abandon the accounting field and open his shop) and Charles Barkley's recent memoir. Fictional bestsellers, kids' books and Black Nationalist political manifestos all share shelf space, and line the walls around a small collection of African clothing, incense, native masks and instruments.

The merchandise has changed "dramatically" over the years, says Watson, who started out running a mostly clothing-oriented shop, but then realized, "If you come in and buy a dashiki, that's fine, but if you bought a book about African clothing and read it and understood the significance of wearing a dashiki, how much better would you be for that?"

The neighborhood around him has changed some, too. Money and attention has flowed into Forest Park Southeast, as the city and several developers and large institutions have concentrated their efforts to improve the once-desolate area. Watson regards the newfound status of his neighborhood with a slightly skeptical eye, although he of course hopes it all turns out for the best. Still, he notes that many of the residents moving into new construction or historical rehabs are "European, and I just don't think they're that apt to patronize my shop. And even though people are talking about all kinds of free money becoming available, there are always strings attached...and I very often don't fit the profile for 'free money.'" He makes that last observation with a wry smile.

Marcus Watson Not much time is on his hands just to chat, though, as a small but steady stream of customers keeps the front door swinging right up until closing time on the night before Thanksgiving. Marcus Watson greets them all with a, "Hello, brother, how are you?" or "Welcome, sister, welcome." Most make purchases, some are stopping by to check on items they've ordered or just to say hi. They and the others they send in — word-of-mouth is by far his best means of advertising, Watson says — are the reason he stays on this corner, living out his vision.

"To be honest, I really have no idea what I would be doing if I weren't doing this," he says. "We have such plans for the future, expanding to have a small cafe and lectures and other events, that how far we go is really just dependent on how much I can physically do."

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