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Store at MATTER Is Colorado’s Solely Black-Owned Bookstore

The bookstore at Store at MATTER. Picture by Sandra Ramos

Rick Griffith and Debra Johnson lead Store at MATTER, Denver’s eclectic bookstore that’s a lot extra. Are we prepared to affix them?


Store at MATTER isn’t simply a bookstore. You’d be forgiven for assuming so while you peruse the shop on Denver’s Market Road, the place a collection of works by American writer bell hooks (the pen title for Gloria Jean Watkins) line the cabinets subsequent to The New Jim Crow, The Water Dancer, and Antiracist Child. The store sells books, sure, however, as co-owner Rick Griffith tells me, “We don’t assume our bookstore is about one factor any greater than we predict Black individuals are about one factor.”

MATTER is a graphic design consultancy, a print store, a studio, a stationary outlet, and a cultural touchstone. It’s additionally the one Black-owned bookstore in Colorado. Artists can refill on instruments and letterpress-printed playing cards, whereas academics shuffle by way of the rows of what Griffith calls “life-changing paperwork”—a curated assortment of fiction and nonfiction masking social justice, race, gender, LGBTQ+ rights, poetry, philosophy, artwork, activism, and concrete planning. “,” Griffith provides, “what’s been neglected of schooling that we have to complement?”

Once we meet (on Zoom, in fact) in mid-September, Griffith has his greying hair sculpted into its signature model, two cones on either side of his head. He sits in a cluttered workplace beside Debra Johnson, his co-owner and associate, who joined the enterprise 5 years in the past. She wears a multicolored shirt, trying each bit the artist in her component.

Take heed to them lengthy sufficient, and also you perceive how deeply they perceive one another. They tease and bicker, however additionally they end one another’s sentences thoughtfully, with care and restraint. Having recognized one another for years, their bond solely just lately grew into one thing extra. They each lived in northwest Denver; their youngsters went to preschool collectively. They each have been widowed at a comparatively younger age. He’s a Black man; she’s a white lady with Black relations. They’re each designers. Griffith’s late spouse was a pricey buddy of Johnson’s, and when she fell gravely in poor health, it turned apparent to Johnson that Griffith would wish help. She stepped in instantly. “Loss of life don’t scare me,” she instructed him.

They lived lower than two miles away from one another, Griffith elevating his women and Johnson elevating her boys. He stayed in a downtown warehouse, whereas she maintained an previous Victorian. Griffith doesn’t like homes—“an excessive amount of psychic vitality there”—so Johnson went to him.

As Griffith remembers, their dialog went one thing like this.

Johnson: “My neighbors wish to know if I’m gonna run away and be part of the circus with you.”

“Oh,” he mentioned. He knew instantly what she meant.

“, I’d form of be open to that,” she added.

Immediately, Johnson tells me, “We had an alignment that was profound after which we fell in love. After which we’re like, oh, properly, since we’re in love, and we’re doing this factor, then why don’t we do all of this factor?” She signed on to merge her firm—and her life—together with his.

They’ve just lately turn out to be empty-nesters, and now they’re navigating love and enterprise in a pandemic-constricted world. Griffith spends a number of time on Zoom these days—someplace round 5 hours a day on common, he guesses. He conducts consultations with of us in Italy; he collaborates with artists across the nation. He’s led MATTER for over 20 years, however he’s but to fall right into a complacent rhythm. He virtually appeared to anticipate the pandemic. When it hit, MATTER was prepared: He and Johnson designed Zoom playing cards for purchasers to carry up throughout digital conferences, every with intelligent sayings like, “Nonetheless On Mute,” “Potty Break,” and “Manner To Squash That Racist Coverage” in huge block letters.

Additionally they had a full inventory of anti-racist literature prepared when, earlier this summer season, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the hands of police sparked Black Lives Issues protests throughout the nation, together with in Denver. Anti-racist studying lists turned a number of the hottest articles to share amongst family and friends, with titles together with The New Jim Crow and How To Be An Antiracist capturing to the highest of many bestseller lists. Griffith was quoted in a Washington Submit article concerning the phenomenon: “I’ll take each one that needs these books. I’ll take each individual that desires to affix on this work.”

“We’ve actually tailored, and that’s a part of the flourishing of our bookstore … on the similar time that the pandemic was occurring, folks have been thirsty for information, they usually have been thirsty to do issues,” Johnson says. “So we have been there on the proper time.”

However that doesn’t imply MATTER is with out battle or disappointment. Griffith and Johnson know the way straightforward it’s for a bookstore to go beneath. Denver had one other Black-owned bookshop, the Hue-Man Expertise, when Griffith first moved to the world in 1995, however it closed in 2000 when the proprietor, Clara Villarosa, relocated to Harlem in New York Metropolis. “Somebody requested me, ‘what occurred to them?’” Griffith says. “And I mentioned, ‘I feel they went out of enterprise whereas we weren’t trying.’ And that may be a testomony to how [these stores] turned type of out of date within the time of Amazon, within the time of fast on-line e book gross sales, and in how neighborhood has modified.”

So MATTER focuses first on neighborhood; commerce comes second. They hold their workload regular, certain: Johnson and Griffith each create graphic designs—he tends to concentrate on general branding and typography, whereas she’s the one with an “eagle eye for particulars.” They’ve developed arts schooling programs for organizations together with Denver Public Colleges and the Nationwide Endowment for the Arts they usually’ve every taught design courses at native colleges. They converse at conferences and handle shoppers by way of Zoom. They inventory books, instruments, puzzles, video games, a tarot deck, and surrealist housewares which are “deliberately fairly odd” on the Market Road storefront. They promote the “second-most snug pen on this planet.” (The primary is simply too costly.) Forward of the election this November, they’re printing VOTE posters for decreased costs and delivery them to battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Oh, they usually promote pledge indicators for enterprise house owners to place of their home windows that learn, “Right here, there’ll at all times be penalties for racist conduct. Bigots stroll. Don’t come again.”

Rick Griffith’s letterpressing work (“I See You Making an attempt”) is featured on Discipline Notes notebooks. Courtesy of Discipline Notes Model

However, above all, Griffith and Johnson construct neighborhood. They join thinkers within the metropolis with these in the hunt for data. They clear up issues for Black Denverites who’re looking for monetary schooling. They train courses on letterpress printing and democracy. They collaborate with nationwide manufacturers. Earlier this month, in style nationwide pocket book model Discipline Notes featured Griffith’s work in its new “The USA of Letterpress” assortment. 

“I’ve refused to play that recreation the place folks say, ‘It’s simply enterprise,’” Johnson says. “I don’t imagine that. I strongly disagree. It’s enterprise, and it’s a part of our enterprise to be full of affection and empathy. And we won’t have it one other approach.”

So why, Johnson and Griffith each marvel, if they’ve an empathetic ear to Denver’s most marginalized communities, hasn’t any native elected official reached out to them? “We have now zero proof of Metropolis Corridor, elected officers, Metropolis Council, none of these guys have positioned orders right here,” Griffith says. “Is it doable that each one of them have discovered one other useful resource to help with their studying of How To Be An Antiracist or Stamped From The Starting? There’s one other useful resource they’d slightly spend with? I don’t must have them come right here. I do know they’re tremendous busy. I don’t must have them spend right here. However I’m just a little bit saddened by that, as a result of the concept [them buying from the store] may in some way parlay into a fast chat between [customers] and Metropolis Council? I imply, that’s precisely what communities are for!”

However that doesn’t make Johnson or Griffith cynical. I ask them if they’ve considerations about non-Black Denverites performing allyship for the sake of leaping on the BLM bandwagon. What if clients waltz into the shop, choose up a e book, however by no means learn it? Or learn it however don’t go additional to help Denver’s Black communities? “We’re not even remotely cynical about people who find themselves attempting to learn one e book and get quite a bit out of it,” Griffith says. “Once you consider activism, it’s straightforward to consider frustration—as a result of it has this stress round it. However pleasure as an act of resistance is our perspective.”

So the Store at MATTER will go on spreading pleasure by way of artwork and oddities, activism, and goofy Zoom playing cards. They’ll hold the bookshelves stocked for you. And when you’re able to order, however unsure the place to start out, they promise they’ll be mild as you get your toes moist. No such factor as dumb questions. They’ll information the way in which to revolution, as long as you retain studying.

In the event you go: Store at MATTER is open Monday by way of Friday, 10 a.m. to five p.m., and Saturday 12–5 p.m. for on-line order pick-ups. In the event you want to store in-person, you may make an appointment by calling 303-893-0330. 2134 Market Road


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