As Haile and Shirikiana Aina Gerima have come to learn, operating a bookstore on what’s now one of the District’s fastest-growing corridors comes at a cost.
In recent years, the husband-and-wife duo had to expand and diversify their offerings to pay their ever-rising property taxes. But not even that strategy could soften the blow of an assessment that deemed them responsible for a monthly tax of more than $3,000 — an amount they said cuts into their profits.
The Gerimas have since taken their fight to city hall, where D.C. council members have mulled a bill to alleviate their financial burden.
“Sometimes, I feel like I work for the city,” said Shirikiana Aina Gerima, co-owner of Sankofa Video & Books, named after her and husband’s critically acclaimed 1993 film about the return to one’s African identity.
“[To make ends meet], we rent out the office space, the conference room and the front space to families and community groups,” she said .
On June 3, the D.C. Council Committee on Business and Economic Development will hear testimony about the “The Mypheduh Films DBA Sankofa Video and Books Real Property Tax Exemption Act,” introduced by Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) in January.
If passed, this bill would protect Sankofa from taxation and provide the bookstore with what’s described as equitable relief.
Shirikiana Aina Gerima, an African-American filmmaker hailing from Detroit, said the D.C. Council has a responsibility to help residents and business owners who stayed in the District and accentuated the local culture during its toughest times.
“In the history of development, the development came at the cost of families and businesses,” she said. “In rough times, their commitment holds the city together. They pay their taxes, despite what they have to face. Then when the city makes good, they get pushed out.”
The Gerimas initially opened Sankofa Video & Books, located across the street from Howard University, in the late 1990s as a means of distributing their seminal work. The large, spacious storefront has since served as a hub for those seeking material that raises their Pan-African consciousness.
In Sankofa’s later years, a in-store cafe arrived as a complement to the thousands of books, media, clothing and other various types of Pan-African paraphernalia available to patrons.
Additionally, authors, poets, academics and other intellectuals continue to present their work before live audiences. During standing-room-only events, many of them have reflected on gentrification’s impact, exploring it in the context of the forced migration of Africans in the United States and across the world.
That reality has unfolded outside of Sankofa, and along Georgia Avenue for more than decade. Rising property values, and the accompanying tax burden, forced the closure of several neighborhood establishments, including Labamba Sub Shop on the corner of Georgia Avenue and Euclid, and Children of the Sun, among other small businesses.
The disappearance of those stores hint at a greater exodus of African Americans from the Shaw area and other parts of D.C. Since the turn of the century, the District’s Black population has shrank by more than 30 percentage points.
Nadeau, in office since 2015, said conversations with Shirikiana Aina Gerima since the beginning of her tenure compelled her sponsorship of the legislation named for Sankofa.
She recounted hearing similar concerns about economic development from constituents old and new who cite fears of cultural erasure.
“The character of our neighborhoods depends on sustaining the small and local businesses that we know and love,” Nadeau said in an email.
Her gesture to Sankofa counts among efforts to represent local business owners, the most recent being a written letter to the T-Mobile corporation in support of the go-go music playing outside of the MetroPCS store on 7th Street and Florida Avenue in Northwest.
Nadeau has also attempted to connect business owners to economic opportunities.
“Through my work on the council, I also funded and established the Lower Georgia Avenue Main Street organization, which works to support small businesses in the corridor,” she said. “I also expanded the boundaries of the Great Streets program on Georgia Avenue and worked with businesses to help them access Great Streets funding to renovate their storefronts and attract more customers.”
Before the council’s Committee of the Whole deliberates and votes on the bill, it has to be make it through the council’s Committee on Business and Economic Development and Committee on Finance and Revenue.
Since last week’s announcement of the upcoming council hearings, the Gerimas have rallied support for the legislation, encouraging patrons and members of the community to testify in June.
It’s time, Shirikiana Aina Gerima emphasized, to put to use the knowledge conveyed in the readings that line the walls of the bookstore.
“Our job is to make sure there’s enough pressure to make politicians respond,” she said. “Sankofa has to be in place; its job is to provide materials that allow people to grow, think, and address the immediate concerns that chip away at the pillar of this city. Politicians’ jobs aren’t designed for them to save people, but we have to make sure politicians respond to what we say.”