Welcome to Paradise. Please Don’t Step on the Cat.
It’s not unusual to pass by street vendors selling selections of assorted Africana. But if you want the full kaleidoscope of African culture, you need to step into African Paradise, a small store front on Malcolm X between 126th and 127th Street. You’ll know you have arrived by the undulating 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 rip one of the store’s baskets to shreds. “What — did you do that? That’s yours now,” he chuckled. Tall, with grey-brown eyes, he seems ageless. The only certain thing is that he is a lot older than he looks. “I don’t tell people my age, man,” he told me with a laugh, when I asked. He claims that people never believe him when he tells them his age, so he lets them think what they want. “My first son is 27 years old,” he said, by way of dating himself.
Entering the store is like passing into another country. Every item imaginable of African craftsmanship hangs from the walls and bedecks the shelves, available for purchase: woven hats in painted patterns of black and red, wooden canes, totems, masks, snake skins, beads, and woven baskets like the one Zulu destroyed. In addition to the woodwork, the store carries an array of soaps, creams, butters, oils and incenses, brought over from Debe’s native Africa.
Although Debe is himself a craftsman, with a degree in woodworking from a college in Accra, 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 said. The shop is owned by Debe’s sister, who has been running the business, with Debe’s help, for some thirty years.
Being a merchant-entrepreneur runs in the family. Debe’s father had an upholstery business, and his mother, aunts and uncles sold general merchandise. “I’ve been doing this since I was a child,” Debe told me, as he rolled sticks of incense in a layer of foil.
Debe was born in the southern region of Nigeria known as Warri. “The Yorubas are our ancestors, so we come from that lineage,” Debe explained, giving me a crash course in African geography. “We are by the river, 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 Nigerian 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. “My 27-year-old son is in Lagos. Lagos is the commercial capital of Nigeria. It’s like New York,” he explained.
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 business prowess to keep the venture afloat; the current shop is the store’s fifth incarnation. Previously, it was located on 125th Street. “We’ve moved, like, four times to different shops. But we don’t give up; we still want to stay in business,” Debe said.
There have been many stores selling Africana in Harlem, but not many survive. “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 were 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 — a patch of Africa that startles amid the normal retail life of the city. “[People] come in here and they love it, because of the spirit. They feel like, ‘Oh, this is wonderful.’” It’s easy to see why. I found myself drawn to some beautiful figurines of carved wood — tall, elegant, and ghostly. It was hard to look away.
Originally published in WAX Digital Magazine, an affiliate of The Harlem Bee.