It’s not unusual to see street vendors selling selections of assorted Africana. But if you want the full kaleidoscope of African culture, step into African Paradise, a small storefront on Malcolm X between 126th and 127th Streets. You’ll know you have arrived by the undulating African rhythms and the sweet smell of burning incense.
The store is run by Debe—he prefers to use his first name only—an immigrant from Nigeria. When I first met him, he was chiding his cat, Zulu, who had managed to shred a woven basket. “What, did you do that? You did that to that basket? That’s yours now,” he chuckled. Tall, with gray-brown eyes, Debe is a lot older than he looks. “I don’t tell people my age, man,” he said with a laugh, adding that people never believe him, so he lets them think what they want. “My first son is 27 years old,” he said, by way of dating himself. “I’ve got four, three boys and a girl.”
When you enter the store, you could in Dakar or Maputo. Myriad examples of African craftsmanship hangs from the walls and bedecks the shelves: woven hats in painted patterns of black and red, wooden canes, totems, masks, snake skins, beads, and baskets like the one Zulu destroyed. In addition to the craftwork, the store carries soaps, creams, jars of butter, oils, and incenses, Debe is himself a craftsman, with a degree in woodworking from a college in Accra, and most of his merchandise is brought over in trips from the African continent. “My sister travels all over Africa. Mostly she goes to the East/South-East: Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia,” he related.
The shop is owned by Debe’s sister, who has been running the business for some thirty years, with his help. Being a merchant-entrepreneur runs in the family. Their father had an upholstery business, and his mother, aunts, and uncles were merchants. “I’ve been doing this since I was a child,” Debe said, as he rolled sticks of incense in a layer of foil. He was born in the southern region of Nigeria known as Warri. “The Yorubas are our ancestors,” Debe explained, giving me a crash course in African geography. “We are by the Niger river delta, by the Atlantic Ocean.” Although born in Warri, Debe spent most of his youth in Nigeria’s mercantile centers in the West—Lagos and Abeokuta—not far from the border with Benin. “My aunties and uncles do business mostly in the West, so I grew up mostly in the West. But I spent some time in Warri when I was in school as a kid.” He still has friends and family back home, including three of his four children.
For Debe, coming to America was an opportunity that had little to do with woodwork or Africana. “I came here as a professional musician. I’m a drummer. I’ve been playing for, like, 35 years,” he explained. “Music is so powerful it can take you away from things. Music pulled me away from everything.” Debe arrived in America in his thirties to travel and play with what he called “the big bands.”
Eventually, however, Debe partnered with his sister to run African Paradise, returning to his mercantile roots. “Business is my life,” he admits. It has taken all their prowess to keep the venture afloat. “We’ve moved, like, four times [to] different shops. But we don’t give up; we still want to stay in business,” Debe said. “We see people come and go, [with] shops like this. You know, before there used to be, like, three shops on 125th. But they’re all gone.”
The secret, says Debe, is to remain flexible. “You know, if you start doing something from when you are a child, you know the secrets of how to survive. If you know how to do business from scratch when you get trouble you know how to adjust.” The current storefront has been active for around ten years. And despite the vicissitudes of business, African Paradise is determined to stay. “We believe in what we are doing,” Debe told me, firmly.
Some of the store’s merchandise is a bit pricey, especially the more intricate works of craftsmanship. But Debe insists that his store caters to people of all sorts. “I can’t tell you that we have one particular [type of] people who buy from us. Everyone buys from us,” he said. “People call me—African Americans, white people, Indians, everybody. Chinese people.” The store has a way of drawing people in. “[People] come in here and they love it, because of the spirit, the—everything. They feel like, ‘Oh, this is wonderful.’” It’s easy to see why. I found myself drawn to some beautiful figurines of carved wood, thin, elegant, and ghostly. It was hard to look away.