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The unnamed man walking into Afri-Ware's new Ridgeland and Madison location was dressed in his Sunday best.
Perhaps coming from or on his way to church this particular afternoon, the polite, elderly gentleman asked if this was the same store that was over in "the other place."
"Yes," replied Nzingha Nommo, Afri-Ware's owner.
She invited the gentleman in but he said that was all right. This is the fourth location for the 17-year-old clothing, book and novelty store, which Nommo first opened in Broadview. Afri-Ware moved from its most recent space on 266 Lake St. just last week. She was there for five years but business slowed. The new location, 440 S. Ridgeland, is just north of Madison Street. Restaurants, stores and other shops are in the vicinity, and Percy Julian Middle School is nearby just up the street on Ridgeland. Nommo is succinct in explaining why she moved.
"Location, location, location — and did I say, location?" she said, laughing.
It's a much better spot for Afri-Ware, Nommo added. The previous location at Lake and Cuyler had larger floor space, but walk-in traffic — a major source of revenue — was virtually non-existent. The store, she estimates, lost about 30 percent of its business on Lake and Cuyler, and during the Christmas season, roughly 50 percent.
Business was better at Lake and Forest in the Downtown Oak Park business district, Afri-Ware's second home until 2006, when the property was sold by the village to developers. Foot traffic was steady, Nommo recalled, but it dropped off considerably after moving to Lake and Cuyler.
"We are really excited about this new space. It was built to suit," she said. "We have all the space in the world. No parking issues. The idea was that our loyal clientele would be all that we needed to make it work. Lesson learned. There is no other more important factor than new blood."
Nommo is optimistic that walk-in traffic and overall sales will increase. She didn't want to have to close the store temporarily before relocating. Her paid staff, along with some dedicated volunteers, helped the move go smoothly. The storefront location includes a basement that Nommo hopes to turn into an art gallery. A back room on the main level currently houses storage items, but she's planning to use that space as a performance area.
Over the years, Afri-Ware has hosted book signings as well as fairs for area entrepreneurs to sell their wares. But Nommo sometimes had to shut down her own store's operations in order to accommodate events. She said she won't have to do that now with her extra space.
She and her staff are planning a three-day grand opening from Friday, June 17 to Sunday, June 19. The new store will be open five days a week instead of three at the previous location. Nommo also anticipates staying in this space for an extended time.
"I think this one's a keeper," she said.