Hyde Park’s last African wares stores persist


Malcolm Taylor

The owner of Kilimanjaro International, Mother Rose, stands by the art she displays outside the store.

Chloe Ma, Content Manager

Tucked between the shiny new storefronts of Sweetgreen and Philz Coffee on 53rd Street in Hyde Park, sits a small but resilient community of stores selling African art, clothing, personal items and home goods. Some have been in business for decades, but changing demographics and gentrification of Hyde Park have forced out or closed many of these stores. 

An ever changing subcommunity of this neighborhood includes the multitude of African wares stores scattered from 53rd to 47th streets. Most of these stores specialize in African wares and art. Some started as businesses and later blossomed into a community. The store owners and customers now make up a body of people that aim to share with and educate others about their culture and history. 

During the pandemic, a lack of customers has exacerbated the effects of gentrification. Despite this, the community has persisted in its efforts to expose others to African culture and commerce.

Kilimanjaro International:

Hidden away on 53rd Street near the core of downtown Hyde Park, the charming shop Kilimanjaro International is far more than it seems. On the outside, passersby can see an array of colorful jewelry and artistry, bright clothing and various works of art. On the inside, this shop lifts up its community by supporting local homeless youth artists.

 Not only does Kilimanjaro International sell American art, but also art from African artists. The owner of this store, who refers to herself as “Mother Rose” or “Sister Rose,” hopes that the young people she supports will continue to make a positive difference in Hyde Park like she has for over 35 years.

 Mother Rose also connects homeless artists with artist mentors in order to help them create their own businesses. 

Mother Rose also said that the gentrification of Hyde Park has been pushing small businesses like herself out by raising rent, along with the people she strives to support and uplift. She used to rent the storefront now occupied by Five Guys, but was forced to move when the rent was raised too high.

The pandemic has also put a strain on businesses, with fewer people going out to brick-and-mortar shops. She hopes to continue helping people learn how to run a business, but without the revenue from in-person customers, it has been hard.

She expressed her concerns and devastation at this fact, stating that she wants to help the homeless people she sees in pain.

 “The homeless I see in the streets, in the cold, we need to help and reach people but it takes money to reach people and the business now is not doing really well,” Mother Rose said.

Kilimanjaro International is still open for business, located at 1305 E. 53rd.

Kayra Imports:

Colorful fabrics and clothing, a twinkling wall of earrings and the smell of incense wafting through the air are the first things to be noticed when entering Kayra Imports. 

Run by Alassane Soumare, Kayra Imports has three locations: 53rd street, 87th Street and 83rd Street. The stores sell African clothing and fabric, as well as custom designs and styles.

Mr. Soumare has been in Hyde Park for 11 years but has been in the United States for over 20 years. According to Mr. Soumare, approximately 95% of his customers are Black and come from Chicago and its surrounding suburbs.  

“I haven’t seen a lot of changes myself, since I’ve been here over 20 years,” Mr. Soumare said in regard to the demographic of Hyde Park.

He has built up a loyal clientele over the years and credits this to the strong Illinois community. Mr. Soumare says that the best part of operating Kayra Imports is meeting unique people and making lifelong friendships.

Frontline Books:

Frontline Book Publishing, a bookstore located on Harper Avenue and 52nd Street, caters to anyone interested in books about African and African American culture and people.

“We serve books that you wouldn’t find in other book stores, about our people,” the owner, Sekoutafari, said. “There are a limited number of Black bookstores now; at one time, there would be three or four hundred nationwide.”

Frontline Books has been in Hyde Park for approximately 18 years and is one of the longest-standing Black bookstores in the area. Sekoutafari credits his store’s endurance to the support from the community that surrounds him. He said the store’s received support from both Black and non-Black people in the community who have all pushed to keep the shore open. 

He also talked about the Black book stores that had existed in the neighborhood for upwards of 30 years that no longer exist due to rising rents in the area.

As the Black Lives Matter movement gained traction, more and more young people came into his store to educate themselves, according to Sekoutafari. He said many people come in wanting to learn more about racism, the Black Panther Party, Martin Luther King Jr. and  Malcolm X.

One of Sekoutafari’s favorite memories of working at his store is when Michael Jackson’s father, Joe Jackson, insisted the store stay open after hours so that he could go in and look after having a meal next door.