Akente Express: A Beacon for Blackness
The early 90’s were a special time in Black history. Fresh out of the 80’s, a decade that brought Reaganomics, crack and a doubling in the Black male murder rate, the 90’s offered a chance to do things differently.
The new decade offered fresh and creative artists, bold fashion, bright colors and a renewed sense of Black heritage pride – identified as Afrocentrism.
Afrocentric roots can be traced to the 1960’s revolutionary movement. The 90’s, however, reinvigorated the sentiment and proliferated Afrocentric culture in urban communities. Events such as the National Black Expo exploded onto the scene and helped infuse an entire generation with a renewed sense of pride with their Blackness, and an intense focus on ways to improve Black.
Ron Springer, a young and ultra-talented Denver resident, fell in love with the essence of the movement.
“I’m from New York City,” Springer says, “and one day while discussing the Afrocentric movement with my sister she told me that Akente cloth was being sold in New York for a dollar a yard. I said, ‘Wow,’ because what I saw out there was selling for $19 a yard.”
After traveling to New York and finding Akente cloth selling for $3 a yard, Springer brought the cloth back to Denver, charging $9 a yard. He also picked up a number of related items and sold everything within two weeks.
“I hit a sweet spot,” Springer explains. “The movement was alive and well on the East Coast, and everything was reverberating from Chicago to Indiana where the Black Expo started. Those were the days of the Black Expo in 1990, but it never came to Colorado.”
The Black Expo
Springer attended the event in New York City, which he says was a mind-blowing experience.
“It was like walking into the Brooklyn Academy of Music, but on a grander scale,” Springer says. “They had a thousand vendors. It was overwhelming, like sensory overload. It was so much Blackness being waved at me; it was like getting caught up in a tsunami.”
Springer says everything was inspiring and unique. Every booth filled with amazing stuff that was African based.
“It just scooped right over Denver,” Springer says. “I think it went to parts of Texas, Houston, and Atlanta. That was their route, and they were interchanging vendors, and the market was bubbling. It was like walking into heaven on earth as far as Afrocentricity was concerned.”
When Springer returned to Denver he saw an Afrocentricity absence – it just hadn’t been introduced in the Mile High City.
“I put two and two together, and that’s how it all came together,” Springer explains. “I picked certain pieces and brought them back to Colorado.”
The opportunity to fill Denver’s void was both inspirational and daunting to Springer. He dove in headfirst with his partner and college friend Michael Simmons to create a platform for Afrocentric values and goods in the untapped Denver market.
Springer Brings Afrocentrism to Denver
Springer says, he tested the market, and after the first two weeks, he started seeing people wearing African fabric for the first time in Denver. He saw the proudness in their faces as they said, “This is mine.” And then he noticed the lifestyle that carried – Afrocentricity from births to funerals, and how it all intertwined and how proud people were of their Afrocentricity.
“It all kind of came together right then,” Springer says, “and I said what an opportunity, I just pushed and it opened up. The sisters embraced it. They were exposed to African jewelry, fabrics were hot and that intertwined into the theater, dance, schools, quilters, just that whole movement along with the Hue-Man bookstore as its leader. Owner Clara Villarosa came to me and asked, ‘Hey you need a building?’ And where would be a better place to get a building than next to the Hue-Man bookstore.”
An African Center, as Springer called it, was born. The movement spread to the corner where there was midnight jazz, Roxy’s doing the catering, Sharell on one corner and also the Tunsun Art Gallery. The whole block became a beacon of Blackness that was not on Denver’s historic Five Points. The pride that the Afrocentric culture instilled in Springer’s clients kept them coming back and buoyed Simmons and Springer’s shop toward being a prosperous business.
“People started coming in saying, ‘I need my Black soap, my shea butter, it works better than the lotions and creams.’ So it rolled into hair and skin care products, and I think that was my saving grace because when you’re selling artifacts or fabrics, you only need one spool, you only need so much fabric.”
Between Ron Springer and Michael Simmons, Akente was ready to hit the ground running. They opened the doors on 919 Park Ave West in the early 1990’s.
Simmons, a salesperson, was a very outgoing person in the community, while Springer was running back and forth from New York,Chicagoand D.C. sending goods.
“You have to have a yin and yang, but you have to have a middle ground,” Springer explains, “Everybody has a certain strength they bring to the table.His was a political and social strength, mine was sourcing and buying.”
Although relatively new to the world of business, which came with a fair share of ups and downs, Springer often found himself in oddly fortuitous scenarios. Even with the naming of the store.
“The name came from an older African woman who was fussing at me,” Springer recalls. “I had been spending money with her all week, and one day I was saying, ‘I want to get some Kente cloth.’ She became agitated and said, ‘If you’re going to use the name Akente, at least pronounce it correctly.’”
Springer smiled at the agitated woman and said, “You just named my business.”
Rise of Akente Express
Springer’s mix of ambition, courage, and integrity led him to find great success as he began to further entrench himself into the fabric of Denver’s community. The Akente Express not only became a highly sought after location for its quality goods, but the store also began to take on importance as a cultural hub for like-minded individuals throughout the metro area.
“There was a time when I worked 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week for 19 years straight,” Springer says. “All I knew was coming to work. It was good, but then again, it had its pluses and minuses. Once people try any of the products here, and we only have top-shelf products, they say ‘I’m taking my cologne back to Macy’s or I’m taking my shea butter back to Walgreens. I’m not going to buy this from Whole Foods anymore.’”
With such a grasp on the demands of the market, many had no choice but to shop at Akente Express.
“The satisfaction of knowing what we started more than 20 years ago is still up and running. I’ve seen 40 of these same businesses in Denver from basement businesses to the corporate level spring up – people in the African marketplace who are just in it for the money. People, who say, ‘What are Black people buying now? What is this thing called a Kinara? What’s this essential oil? What’s this and what’s that?’ We looked up one day, and we had a lot of competition.”
Springer says anybody who comes into his shop, and does a direct comparison,are going to say, “I’m not going to buy this anywhere else.”
“We sell fragrances that you can go downtown and spend $100 on,” Springer says, “but you can get it here at the shop for $6, and it’s a better product. 7-11 was selling incense, but their incense smelled like sawdust. After a while, the whole community gave in and said, instead of spending the money with those people, let me come down to the shop. It was my job to convince them we have the best price, product, and best customer service.”
One of the great struggles throughout African-American history has been trying to reconnect with more extensive and older Black cultures, as much of that history has been destroyed by the Atlantic slave trade. Afrocentrism, however, gave an opportunity for African-Americans to connect with a history that connects them with the pride and greatness of many African nations.
“The most impressive one I think was a three-year-old who walked out of here with African Garb on. Then of course for the sisters it was fashionable, and that’s where again Simmons came in. He transferred the African fabric over to American views, and at that point, it all took off from there.”
Unfortunately, often there’s an underlying tension between African and African-American communities, most often due to preconceived notions and hesitations from the respective parties to venture to the other side of the cultural aisle. Fortunately for us, individuals like Springer’s input can empathize equitably with both sides, and serve as a bridge to create unity between different cultures of Black people.
“Being an ambassador,” Springer says. “I take it like Kissinger took it. They had preconceived ideas about what coming to America was like. What they didn’t see on Eddie Murphy, they saw in street crimes and drug selling, the whole gang banging kind of thing. So they had to discern who was who, who was trying to do what. I would see them day after day, month after month and after a while, we just formed really good relationships.”
Legacy of Akente
Over the past 30 years, Akente has become much more than a store full of African goods. It has become the essence of a community, the soul of a pro-black Afrocentric wave in the heart of one of the largest cities in the country.
Springer had the foresight to see what was coming and the benefits of Black ownership.
“It gives you a lot of rights,” Springer says, “and no one can tell you your lease is going up. I’ve had days when no money was coming in – it hasn’t been all roses. It’s the roller coaster of business, which everybody has, but with some tenacity and the right timing, things work out for you. If you look at what’s happening on Welton Street, I hate to say it but soon all of the Black businesses will be gone there. The rents are $2,500 a month; ownership shields you from that. That’s not unique to Denver. It happened in New York and D.C. and what used to be the ‘chocolate city’ is now the ‘mocha city’.”
As the last man standing, in what was once a thriving Black business strip, Springer accredits his tactics of ownership for much of his sustained success.
“The main thing was that I bought the building,” he says, “with that, you just have to keep up with your maintenance and your taxes. You don’t have to put up with someone coming along and raising your lease.”
Springer says he’s always been into real estate and has owned a lot of property. However, he became tired of being a landlord, so he consolidated. He figured if he was going to work in the store, he might as well own the building.
“That turned out to be a very good move,” he says. “I watched what was going on with the politics of Five Points, and how they were just running people out of there.”
Although many people were disheartened by the news of Springer’s departure from Akente Express, much of that anxiety was relieved when they realized that the store they’ve all grown to know and love will remain.
“It was really important to me to make sure there was an Akente Express in Denver,” Springer says. “Where else would Black folks get their shea butter, and that’s just one item. But as you see, it has proliferated itself to a bodega – an African bodega.”
Springer says he realized that he needed people around him who could take up the slack. Enter Akeel, a graduate of Boulder Herbology school, who Springer has been mentoring.
“I’ve been introducing him to all the things and all of the resources as far as your medicinal health is concerned,” Springer says, “so he’s running that particular department.”
On the administrative side, Springer brought in Michael Durant and Ron Haynes. He adds that his sons have put together the internet portion, which expands the business, and makes it easy for local and national customers to shop in the comfort of their homes or offices.
And as far as the new owners, Haynes and Durant, are concerned, “It’s like getting on a bike - you just keep riding and pedaling – the foundation is here,” Springer says.
Not only will new ownership allow the Akente Express to continue and thrive for many years, but Springer plans on tapping into Denver’s emerging and untapped international nightlife market.
“Being West Indian, I’m going to be in the Caribbean and traveling to South Africa and just gathering music as I go,” he says. “I’m not going to jump into this right away. I have to go sit on the beach and recharge my battery. If I don’t, I’ll lose my mind.
Denver is quite ripe for a downtown upscale place; for us, there are no accommodations for Black people downtown at all.”
Editor’s note: Akente Express will change hands this spring.Still, visit them at 919 Park Ave. West or call 303-297-8817.