The storefront for Sankofa Video Books & Cafe, the popular bookstore specializing in items for the African American community
The storefront for Sankofa Video Books & Cafe, the popular bookstore specializing in items for the African American community

The Office of Tax and Revenue (OTR) recently honored an arrangement that grants Sankofa Video Books & Cafe an exemption from paying property taxes for a decade but it would be an arduous, three-year-long process that included a slew of tax bills and the discovery of a certification process.

In the fall of 2019, the Mypheduh FIlms DBA Sankofa Video & Books Tax Exemption Tax Abatement Act, went into law after the D.C. Council overwhelmingly approved it and D.C. Mayor Bowser signed it into law with congressional approval. 

However, unbeknownst to Sankofa’s owners Haile and Shirikiana Gerima, implementation of the tax abatement required them to confer with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED) and to apply for recertification every year.  

Shirikiana Gerima said, shortly after the bill’s passage, she unsuccessfully attempted to contact D.C. Councilmember Nadeua’s office to determine whether the abatement had gone into effect. By October 2020, when the pandemic caused several businesses, including Sankofa, to shutter, the Gerimas stopped paying property taxes. However, they kept receiving notices from OTR. 

By the beginning of this year, the bookstore had accumulated a tax debt of $90,000 and OTR had the storefront up for auction. It was only after a conversation with Nadeau and subsequent engagements with DMPED, that they discovered the need to recertify. 

Once the Gerimas had done so, OTR wiped Sankofa’s slate clean and took it off the auction list. 

“This is part of the way things in D.C. work. You need a team to be on the defensive to make sure [nothing] is happening that can bite you in the back,” Shirikiana Gerima said as she expressed her thanks to the community for its support throughout the years. 

 “The technicality has been implemented by the city [and] we had never been contacted after the law passed,” she said. “There was a lot of drama for two or three weeks.” 

DMPED said Sankofa has been certified for tax years 2020, 2021 and 2022. But to qualify for recertification, the owners had to show proof of business ownership and confirm that Sankofa still functioned as a bookstore, video store, or cafe. The tax abatement also requires that 30% of Sankofa’s staff live in Ward 1. 

Sankofa, named after Haile Gerima’s critically-acclaimed 1993 film about the return to one’s African identity and which opened in the late 1990s, has continued to attract community members of various ages and racial and ethnic backgrounds. Authors, poets and academics feature their works in the store and make presentations before live audiences. The storefront initially opened as a means of distributing the Sankofa film but later expanded into selling books and opening a cafe that serves sandwiches, coffee, smoothies and other treats. 

By the time the Gerimas and supporters lobbied the D.C. Council for a tax abatement, Sankofa’s property taxes had incrementally increased by $3,000. That’s why several people, including owners of other legacy District businesses, testified before the D.C. Council in support of Sankofa’s tax abatement.
The Players Lounge, based in Congress Heights in Southwest, has since received similar support. 

Since District businesses and agencies fully reopened, Sankofa has showcased new book titles and hosted a bevy of community events, both in person and virtually. One of the most recent, a family game night, took place on the evening of August 5. 

Weeks prior, Sankofa hosted an open mic event that attracted several patrons, including Sean Davis, a local lawyer who has frequented Sankofa for five years. 

Davis, who spends much of his time with other bibliophiles in workshops he facilitates, first visited Sankofa while working remotely. He has since considered it a refuge for forward-thinking, altruistic people of the Diaspora. 

Some of Davis’ biggest memories include seeing award-winning director Ava DuVernay and watching Haile Gerima connect a woman facing eviction with a lawyer at the end of an event. He said these kinds of moments continue to inspire his vision of hosting a bookstore and lounge of his own one day. 

“With everything going on in the city, having a cultural space controlled by us is important,” Davis said. “Just being here and seeing the owners is inspiring. It feels like a community. Haile Gerima is helping by being in the community. He stands his ground and cares about others.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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