When the image of a library comes to mind, it’s often stuffy and still, pairing literature with silence. Conversely, mention of a hip new coffee shop might conjure images of young professionals, glowing Apple logos, and the clattering rush of keyboards.

But when Bev Tumi Makhubele and Naledi Yaziyo picture their creation, Rofhiwa Book Café, they see color, accessibility, and a celebration of Black culture. Rofhiwa will be located on the southwest corner of Angier Avenue and South Driver Street in Old East Durham; the name means “we have been given” in Tshivenda, a language of South Africa.

“I like to imagine that on a Saturday morning, when a family is deciding what to do with the day, Rofhiwa might be part of their plans,” Yaziyo says.

In early February, Makhubele and Yaziyo launched the bookshop website; they hope to open the shop doors in March. When they do, the pair plan to carry a carefully curated selection of adult and children’s books by Black authors and serve coffee from Black roasters. The vision, they say, is of a vibrant space that fosters conversation and community.

As a child, Makhubele noticed that the books they were encouraged to read in school did not match the books their mother talked about reading growing up. They were excited about Goosebumps, while their mother could recite whole passages from certain African novels. A piece of cultural connection and representation was missing.

In 2014, Makhubele began sorting through their mother’s belongings and dug out her well-loved copy of Megokgo ya bjoko by South African author O.K. Matsepe. The wrinkled paperback helped them discover a passion for collecting rare and out-of-print novels by Black authors.

“A lot of these books go out of print, and then they disappear,” Makhubele says. “I wanted to get my hands on as many as I could—in this life, anyway.”

Shortly after, in 2017, Makhubele decided they wanted to make these rare novels accessible to children and adults, in a space that felt like home. And thus, Rofhiwa was born.

Yaziyo, who is curating the book selection, has unorthodox ideas about the way a bookstore can be organized. She wants to reimagine the typical shelving of bookstores and libraries, where genres are sorted categorically. She thinks of literature as a living being, and wants to group books in conversation with one another.

“A crime novel can sit next to a romance, yes,” Yaziyo said. “But at Rofhiwa, a crime novel is sitting next to a romance and a piece of historical fiction, and what’s special about it is that they are from different regions where Black people live and make life. And they reflect different experiences.”

Take Mpumi’s Magic Beads by Lebohang Masango, a children’s book set in Johannesburg that depicts a little girl who can transport out of the city by the magic beads in her hair. When intentionally placed beside James Baldwin’s Little Man Little Man, a story of a child living in Brooklyn, it becomes part of a larger dialogue about the global limitations that city life poses for Black children wanting to play.

“That conversation is held across time, across two very different cities,” Yaziyo says. “But there’s a way that you can read those books and not have those conversations. So I’m trying to think about how we can place those books in such a way that that conversation becomes obvious.”

Rofhiwa is not the first Black-owned bookstore to open in Durham. The Know Bookstore, which was run by Bruce Bridges for 18 years on Fayetteville Street, was a longtime community cornerstone—a jazz club, soul food café, and lecture spot all-in-one. Its patrons remember the space as a celebration of Black culture; one perfumed with the smell of incense and fried chicken. The bookstore shuttered in 2009, though, and today the space is vacant, with plans in the works for it to become a Checkers location.

The historic 406 South Driver Street building where Rofhiwa will open, meanwhile, also has a storied past. In previous lives, it has been home to numerous community-centered spaces, including a pharmacy, a physicians’ office, and a barbershop. Between 2018 and 2020, the space was occupied by the popular pie shop, East Durham Bake Shop, which closed abruptly in September, amid employee allegations of a toxic workplace.

Yaziyo and Makhubele hope to enhance the sense of community and Black excellence that has long existed in the area. Neighboring Black-owned businesses include a screen printing and t-shirt service, a barbecue supply store, a diner, and two barbershops.

“I think when people say, ‘We’re so excited that this corner is coming to life,’ they mean the collective effort of everybody,” Makhubele said. “We’re just hoping to be half as good as our neighbors.”

In December, Makhubele and Yaziyo launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund Rofhiwa’s construction. They were met with an outpouring of community support: By January 12, the campaign had reached its $40,000 goal, accruing 1,032 backers in just over a month.

“We want to make something where Black people feel like they deserve to be there,” Makhubele says. “We live here. This is home for us. And this will be home for you.”

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