In his seminal work Blues People, writer LeRoi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka) describes Congo Square-a place in 19th century New Orleans where Africans would gather under moonlight to sing, dance and play African-derived instruments. More importantly, the slave population came to Congo Square to perform songs and rituals-musical laments and spirituals to djembe drum beats-that had been banned by slave owners, who tended to view African art forms as heathen.
The theme of Congo Square has lived on in black-owned cafés and bookstores nationwide, including in San Diego.
Since first opening on Dec. 15, 2002, R.Spot Barber and Books at 3013 University Ave. in North Park has served as the modern-day Congo Square for San Diego's African-American community, a place where black artists of all kinds regularly come together to participate in open dialogue and share their talents.
It's also one of the few black-owned bookstores in San Diego County, with titles by black authors that are unavailable in larger corporate bookstores.
All of that came to an end July 15-at least temporarily.
James Richards, owner of R.Spot, received notice a couple months ago that the property would be changing hands.
Although Richards, 40, was hoping to renew his lease, he learned that the building's new owner, Retail Properties Group, is doubling the rent-and Richards says he can't afford the increase.
Despite the bad news, Richards is upbeat about the latest chapter in the history of his business. "R.Spot was to symbolize a collective-it's not me. It's what everybody brings to this space," he said. "The four walls aren't what make it what it is; it's the people."
Richards said he views the rent increase not as a hindrance, but rather as an opportunity to build upon what he's learned and update R.Spot. He's currently looking for another location, and when R.Spot re-opens, Richards said, he'll have a bigger inventory of books and more events for the community.
"I want to put more emphasis on it being a well-stocked bookstore, covering the entire African Diaspora, " Richards said. "It's time to make that transition. I have to continue to serve the community."
Starting R.Spot was a calling Richards couldn't ignore-he always dreamed of opening a venue that promoted black-centered artistic expression ranging from photography and painting to music and poetry. R.Spot came to be known as one of the premier locations for spoken-word events, and many progressive organizations used the space to hold educational forums, voter-registration drives and presentations.
R.Spot was a place where artists like painter Stephanie Grigsby could exhibit their work for the first time. "R.Spot helped define me as an artist," said Grigsby. "When I went into R.Spot, it had that "be who you are' type of feeling."
"The barbershop and the beauty salon has always been a place where black people can go and interact with other people and hear each other's stories," said painter Mimi Demelew, who frequents R.Spot. "When you come here, you're at peace and you are inspired to create."
Notwithstanding Richards' optimistic outlook toward his upcoming move, many of the artists and performers who view R.Spot as a second home are sad to see it go.
Musician and poet Salim Sivaad believes that in San Diego's age of gentrification, redevelopment and ever-increasing rents, R.Spot won't be the last artistic venue forced to pack up and move.
"The artists around here built this place. There's a renaissance going on here," Sivaad said. "You move all the artists out and you take out all of the things that made [North Park] desirable in the first place. R.Spot is not going to be the last business affected by this push."
"It's going to be a mourning process to watch those doors close," Grigsby said. "It's sad to see such a positive place go-but when it comes down to money, all of that doesn't really matter."
Richards said he wasn't particularly surprised by the rent increase, considering the evolution of the neighborhood. "The writing was on the wall," he said. "North Park's been getting a lot of attention. A lot of people have come out and enjoyed the art and culture of this community. That's usually a sign that someone is going to try to capitalize on it. It goes with the territory."
Richards said that if he is successful in finding a new location for R.Spot, he hopes to be open again within the next eight to 10 months.
He said he's been blessed with all of the artists that have made R.Spot so successful. "I know that I am going to take the energy with me," Richards said. "We'll continue to create beautiful things out of things that didn't exist. The next place that we go, it may not exist right now, but when we get there, we will turn it into a beautiful place. That I am confident of."
R.Spot will hold a closing sale on Saturday, July 23, from 8 a.m. until noon.