Ancestry Books: Couple opens the only Black/Brown-owned bookstore on the Northside


There is much power in words.

They allow us to tell the story of our distant past, give us insight into the current day and let us step into an alternate reality looking into the future. In today’s age of up-to-the-second information, opening a bookstore is not only a bold move; it’s an extremely powerful one. I recently sat down with writer and Ancestry Books co-owner Chaun Webster to learn more about the importance of opening an alternate space for building community.

“Ancestry Books is a space where we get to see our own power – the power of our imagination; the power of our ability to create space,” said Webster. “(It’s) not just the chitlins (chitterlings) of spaces – the leftovers, the afterthoughts, but spaces that are truly meaningful that give a us a chance to meet with one another to organize to laugh to and to find shared meaning.”

June 7 marked the grand opening of what he and teacher (and wife) Verna Wong consider a “third space.” This space exists between the home and the workplace allowing for an opportunity to connect with others through a base of knowledge and understanding. Ancestry Books is not only a bookstore but also exists as a meeting space and a new venue for special events.

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Located at 2205 Lowry Ave. N. (near the intersections of Penn and Lowry), according to Webster, Ancestry Books is now the only Black or Brown owned bookstore in the state of Minnesota with a physical space. The last physical space was Uhuru Books that was formerly housed in Java Noire coffee shop in the early 2000s. Needless to say there has been a vacuum of public venues available that are created by and for communities of color to express themselves through literature and conversation.

When asked the importance of literature, Webster said with intent, “It has a vast importance. For me literature had a number of functions. It was as a way for me to travel without leaving. It was a way for me to see myself and I didn’t have that opportunity for a long time. I was a latecomer to that. I remember the first book that was representative for me in my mom’s house was Virginia Hamilton’s ‘Her Stories’ and it had all of these folk and trickster tales that were coming out of the African and African-American experience. I remember that had such a visual captivation and power for me.”

Webster, an avid reader said growing up he would have to search hard to find books that represented the experiences of people of color.

“Most of the literature that was given to us was written by a white male and it was a very narrow perspective about the world,” said Webster.

As people, early in our development we pick up a lot of our self-definition through the written word. Webster said opening his mind to Black literature in high school had an enormous effect on his life.

“We start to get a sense of our ideas about masculinity and femininity from a very young age, so when books are coming into our kids schools and they say boys play with cars and sports, and girls do this thing over here, they are starting to get an idea about how they form ideas around gender, importance, race and beauty. These things are very formative and very subtle in books … and also explicit,” said Webster. “Our kids pick that up – not always directly but they certainly are eating those messages. That’s why we need spaces that will promote a nutritious form of media.”

Ancestry Books provides many opportunities for growth, development and entertainment. Stepping into this space one will find that typically marginalized communities are at the forefront. Conversation is welcome and encouraged. Special ordered materials will also be available. The space will also occasionally host spoken word poets and special guest lecturers.

For-profit cultural institutions are rare in the state of Minnesota. Webster’s insight on this is key.

“We need cultural institutions in North Minneapolis with a physical space,” said Webster. “We have a lot of incredible artists. We have a lot of cultural workers doing great work, but in terms of physical spaces there are not many of us who have that. That sort of development is very import here. I live here. I live down the street from the bookstore. I can see the bookstore from where I live. Very few business owners who own their buildings live in the community in which they are doing that work. That can be, not always, problematic. What does that mean in terms of the possibilities of gentrification? We need folks that are thinking about really supporting spaces like Ancestry Books not just in a self-serving way but understanding that these are dollars that are coming back into the community where they live.”

Ancestry Books’ hours are Mondays 1 p.m. – 7 p.m., Tuesday – Saturday 10 a.m. –7 p.m. and Sunday noon – 5 p.m.

Upcoming events at Ancestry Books include June 14, High Society; June 21, Sarah Warren and June 28, Dr. Joyce Bell book release, “Black Power in the American Social Work Movement.”

Ancestry Books is located on the Internet at Inquires on may be made by calling the bookstore at (612) 521-4090.

Related story: NEWS DAY | Ancestry Books grand opening! (Mary Turck, June 2014)