In 1995, I took 100,000.00 United States dollars and deliberately plunged it into a small -business venture. I called it Briscoe Brown Books, and it had a motto; “Readers become Leaders”. I did not actively pursue a bank loan because I had done some preliminary leg work and heard from the ‘horses’ mouth’ in the banking industry that having a bookstore in a black neighborhood was not a good business venture for them to pursue. Determined, I took my own money and put it where my heart lay. Within a year and a half after, I opened up and word got around that there was a thriving bookstore in the North East Bronx, and that the community at large were gratefully embracing the idea of a bookstore, black-owned, and by Jove, by a black woman; not soon after, Barnes and Noble who had balked repeatedly at the idea of coming to the neighborhood because, “Black people don’t read,” literally went around the corner less than three miles, and opened one of their mega stores and within five years my dreams were destroyed, my spirit crushed and I was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Closing the doors crushed the spirits of hundreds of people in the community. I was no match for Barnes and Noble, who has since seen it fit to desert the neighborhood. It was as if they had only come to destroy my dreams of wanting to play a role in the edification and education of a particular race of people. They shut their doors and left us back where we started and that is a neighborhood without a Bookstore for miles.
I grieved as if I had suffered the loss of a family member. I had lost a part of my self. My feelings were raw for many years after that emotional fire that I experienced and that is why on Friday May 29, 2020 when my friend’s restaurant burned down in the wee hours of the morning I began to weep again.
Seventeen years ago I met a man, Nigel Spence who had the idea to realize his dreams in practically the same neighborhood as my bookstore was, and I immediately embraced his dreams alongside him. Ripe Restaurant was not a five and dime quick eat stop for the “blind-with-hunger-and-will-eat-anything” type.
Ripe Restaurant was a place where the palate was entertained, the senses explored and seduced. It was where you ate wonderful food that caused you to wax poetic, dream of beaches and coconut trees and sometimes even of half-naked women riding horses under moonlit skies. I have known that thrill to be honest. You could even conjure up the sound of rain on a zinc roof when Bob Marley who was always present in spirit sang ‘Is this love”. The spices, the rum, the lilting laughter of the very mixed clientele from all over the Tri State, yes, all over the Tri State. The photograph- lined walls of the many triumphs over Bobby Flay and his many attempts to best Nigel Spence, photographs of events, artistic exhibitions, and writers and their semi-brooding followers, sports figures.
Everyone wanted to eat at Ripe, because Ripe was ripe with pleasures ancient and new, pleasures to be experienced after you ate the food served by the ever friendly servers who came to know you by your first name and always remembered you, they would constantly remind the not-black folks, “remember the pepper enuh” and the not-black –folks would reply,”yah man”. We were truly at one, and in peace with our food, music and our ice cold red Stripe beers, which by the way is the only real Beer on this side of the planet. I will debate that with my last breath, don’t try me.
ON FRIDAY MAY 29 in the wee hours of the morning there was a spark and then a flame and the entire building was razed to the ground and then some. Nigel was getting ready to reopen next week after Covid-19. The store was just restocked from top to toe and was primed to welcome the likes of me and the entire neighborhood for whom his store had become a fixture. Ripe fed the neighborhood. We may have lost a feature of our daily activities but for Nigel its seventeen years of him giving birth to this dream and watching it grow into what was well on its way to becoming a landmark of the North East Bronx and the wider diaspora. I know what he has lost. His child is dead. That is how it feels. You become your dreams when you extend them for all to see as you nurture and tend what became a living thing.
THE FIRE did not have compassion, nor did it care that it was killing seventeen years of a living dream, not a dream deferred, but a dream realized and thriving. The fire burned brightly and did such a thorough job one could recommend it for giving its best, but Nigel was burning too. The staff, the associates, Mel, Lyndonna, Seamus, and many others who I know, are deeply scarred, we came a long way with this project. We nurtured, we watered, we supported, we sounded the clarion, we did all we could to make this dream live to be the pride and joy of Nigel Spence. We loved Ripe Restaurant and I love Nigel Spence and his crew, and am devastated that when Ripe needed me most I was asleep.
AS WE LEAVE THE SCENE, we take into consideration the Covid-19 Pandemic, the racial inequities, the murders, the community fires set out of four hundred years of inherited suffering and pain; nothing is palatable, this is not a time to feast or rejoice, although our faith suggests otherwise.
Today is Pentecost Sunday and another fire has come to us in the fire of The Holy Spirit. I choose to accept what my faith teaches and will stand firmly beside Nigel Spence as he mourns, for he must! I stand with my “Ripe” friends and supporters and am thankful that no physical harm came to anyone. I am grateful for the fire department who acted quickly to contain the blaze within the confines of the premises, and “though much is taken, much abides”.
MOUNT VERNON, NEW YORK.