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
"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
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. …