African-American Store Gives Culture Top Shelf

Article excerpt

The Progressive Emporium is more than a business - it's a cultural enterprise for the African-American community.

"And we respond to the needs of our community," said Johnson Lancaster, spokesman and former manager of the emporium.

"The definition of an emporium is a place where you can get all kinds of things," Lancaster said.

"We try to provide information and materials that are relevant to the African experience," he added. "That includes African imports, clothes, books, jewelry, stationery, toys, games, and video and audio cassettes."

Located for 13 years at the east end of the University City Loop at 6265 Delmar Boulevard, the Progressive Emporium is a non-profit cooperative.

"The cooperative has about 20 (African-American) families that have been supportive of the store," Lancaster said. "We have cooperative members in East St. Louis, in St. Louis County and in the city of St. Louis. And those families represent about 300 people."

Lancaster said the emporium is an out-growth of the Sudan Illustrators, an African-American dance, arts and theatrical group, which was formed in 1971.

"Sudan is an artists' cooperative of musicians, dancers, graphic artists, fine artists, writers, actors and actresses, story tellers . . . and craft workers - jewelry makers, metal workers, wood workers and cloth fabric workers."

The Sudan Illustrators, Lancaster said, regularly stages African dance and drum performances.

"People asked us where we got the material and subject matter for those performances," Lancaster said. "So we began providing that information in displays. But since a lot of the material and books were from personal collections . . . we couldn't sell them. But we began to find sources for these materials.

"Rather than have a popcorn and soda concession at our performances, we would have a table of books and African artifacts. We started doing this in the mid-1970s."

Many of the emporium's customers are looking for books on Africa and African-American history and culture.

"Book requests make up about 30 percent of our business," Lancaster said. "When we opened the store, there really wasn't any other outlet for this type of material."

At first, the Sudan group tried to get regular book stores to stock more African-American literature, but many declined, saying the market was too limited.

"We were told that blacks didn't read," Lancaster said. "It wasn't that we weren't reading - we were reading certain things."

But the book stores' narrow thinking has changed in recent years, and both independent and chain stores have upgraded their black studies sections.

"The Barnes & Noble superstore (in Ladue) does a pretty good job. But there are still black authors and publishers who are not represented," Lancaster said. "So independent black book stores have stepped in. …