February 27, 2024

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The View On Cooking

Longtime Black Community Staple CoCo’s Becomes a Fast Food Joint

Bruce Bridges used to feed his customers knowledge and fried chicken at his beloved Know Bookstore in south Durham.

Now, the owner of the Fayetteville Street property where the bookstore used to stand plans to feed the community hamburgers and fries.

Last week, Durham City Council members unanimously approved a $140,000 economic incentive grant to Bookman Commercial Holdings. The Durham-based limited liability company is run by Dobbin Bookman, whose family has deep business ties to the community, including longtime ownership of 2520 Fayetteville Street.

In the years since Know Bookstore’s closure, the McLaughlin family—of which Bookman is a part—ran CoCo’s Jazz and Cultural Arts Center out of the same storefront. But the business failed to deliver on its promise of Black music and culture in a historic Black neighborhood.

CoCo’s also stumbled as a recording venue where artists could expect “clean, dry vocals” at $35 an hour, according to its billboard. The Thursday night specials for nearby North Carolina Central University students never materialized, either.

“The space has been vacant for a while,” Council member Pierce Freelon noted during the council session.

Bookman is president and owner of Bookman Commercial Holdings, which first registered with the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office on June 4, 2020.

Bookman’s extended family has operated several businesses in the area over the decades, including The Neighborhood, a now-closed, small store at the intersection of Fayetteville and Dupree streets, where N.C. Central students could purchase snacks and cooked food items between classes.

Bookman wants to use the $140,000 in City incentives to demolish the two-story brownstone building and begin construction of a new Checkers fast-food restaurant with walk-up, drive-thru, and outdoor seating.

At the virtual City Council meeting, the thought of the major changes at the site of the former bookstore, which closed in 2010, had council members feeling nostalgic. 

Bookman’s grandmother, 104-year-old Mozella McLaughlin, was once Freelon’s babysitter.

“I grew up in and around that building,” he said.

“I remember being able to get some really good fried chicken [at the bookstore] back in the day,” said Jillian Johnson, the City’s mayor pro tempore.

“You couldn’t go in the bookstore and not have anybody know you were at the Know Bookstore, because it left a wonderful aroma in your clothes,” said Council Member Mark-Anthony Middleton. “I used to go there to get whole bean pies, and try to avoid Bruce, because if he saw you, you were going to leave purchasing much more than you anticipated—or a debate. Fifteen minutes turned into an hour and a half. Wonderful memories.”

“Apparently, I was the only one who bought books,” Mayor Steve Schewel said, jokingly.

“I bought a book once when I came in for fried chicken,” Johnson quipped.

The good feelings flowing from council members’ memories of the bookstore served as a prelude to their vote on January 4.

“I’m glad to see it going to good use,” Johnson said.

“It’s not just a sign or placard saying, ‘Black Folks Were Here,’” Freelon later added. “Black folks are here, building on a legacy through jobs and development.”

But their optimism obscured the ugly series of events that shut down the bookstore years ago.

The handsome brownstone building was built in the 1970s as a pharmacy owned by now-retired pharmacist and jazz musician William McLaughlin, a relative of Bookman’s. But it enjoyed its greatest success when it was rented by Bridges, who for 18 years operated a vibrant and profitable neighborhood center of learning, great food, and live jazz.

When contacted by the INDY, Bridges was surprised to hear that Bookman and the McLaughlin family were planning to open up a Checkers. He offered a cynical contrast between what used to happen at the bookstore and the proposed plans for the location.

Bridges hosted a youth chess club at the bookstore that was supported by Research Triangle Park professionals, along with N.C. Central and area high school faculty members. 

“We were teaching young people how to play chess, and about its Moorish-African origins,” Bridges said. “Chess is about thinking strategically and analyzing. It’s like jazz. It’s cerebral. The place has gone from teaching chess strategies to a Checkers.” 

Longtime residents recall a sprawling, 3,000-square-foot bookstore that was a funky and fun place. Body oils commingled with the smell of fried chicken coming from the kitchen. A Rock-Ola jukebox spun out golden oldies like “La-La Means I Love You” by the Delfonics, “Misty Blue” by Dorothy Moore, and “Buffalo Soldier” by Bob Marley.

It was one of the safe spaces in the neighborhood, where thin wisps of blue smoke trailed upward from sticks of Shahadah incense that could not be found anywhere else in the Triangle. A college student from Duke or Central standing at a bookshelf thumbing through a copy of J.A. Rogers’ 100 Amazing Facts About The Negro or Cheikh Anta Diop’s The African Origin of Civilization was a familiar sight. A budding, earnest young womanist might drop in to ask if her order for bell hooks’ latest book had arrived. 

The store’s very name was inspired by the directive to “know thyself”—an adage often attributed to the ancient Greeks but that Black scholars, including Bridges, say was borrowed from the ancient Egyptians. 

It’s hard not to wonder what impact the bookstore might have had on the neighborhood if it had remained open—whether it might have inspired young people to pick up books instead of guns, possibly curbing some of the violence that has bedeviled the community in the decade since its closure.

Generations of students, activists, politicians, and numerous others throughout the community would come out for the music, food, and spoken word events. Debates, workshops, and lectures featured the likes of a then-relatively-unknown Michael Eric Dyson. Former Essence magazine editor Susan Taylor, Andrew Young, Sister Souljah, H. Rap Brown, Stokely Carmichael, and C. Eric Lincoln all lectured at the bookstore at various points, along with local luminaries like John Hope Franklin, Benjamin S. Ruffin Jr., Howard Fuller, and former Durham mayor William “Bill” Bell.

“The place was a landmark,” Durham native William Rogers, a professor of African and African diaspora studies who recently retired from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told the INDY. “Durham lost a tremendous asset when it lost the bookstore. From 1983 throughout the 1990s, I would come to Durham two or three times a year. My first stop was always at the bookstore.”

Funding unanimously approved by the City Council will help jumpstart the proposed Checkers. Ironically, in 2009, discussion of a similar City financing initiative coincided with the bookstore’s closure in the first place.

That was the year when City officials found themselves caught between a contentious dispute between Mozella, the building’s owner, and Bridges, her tenant, who began renting the property in 1991, splitting it into three spaces for a bookstore, a restaurant, and a kitchen.

At the center of the dispute was the City’s consideration of a plan to grant Mozella neighborhood revitalization funds to renovate the building.

As previously reported in the INDY, giving the money to Mozella would effectively squeeze out Bridges and his bookstore. Bookman recently told the INDY, however, that his family didn’t ultimately receive any City funds at the time.

Mozella, then 92, informed the City Council at the time that she wanted to create “Mok’e Jazz & Cultural Center.” The building would house a restaurant and two retail spaces, one potentially being a smaller version of The Know.

But Bridges says that in 2009, the McLaughlin family did not bother to tell him that City Council members were poised to vote “for money for the store, but not include me.” Shortly before the meeting was set to start, he closed the bookstore early for the day and “expressed my thoughts” about the issue to the council members.

“Everyone was shocked,” Bridges said of the council members, who subsequently delayed the vote. “The next day, Mozella came to the store with a letter and evicted me from the premises. They retaliated against me for speaking out.”

In a recent interview with the INDY, Bookman praised the bookstore’s contributions to the neighborhood.

“We, along with the entire community, very much appreciate Mr. Bridges’ contributions and time spent at this location,” Bookman said in an email. “We are proud to own the property and to have supported several businesses at this location over the past [four] decades.”

Bridges tried to save his bookstore. He hired long-time Durham attorney George Exum, who filed a complaint on his behalf accusing the McLaughlins of violating the state’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Bridges says the case was settled out of court in 2015, when the McLaughlins agreed to a financial settlement.

Exum told the INDY that the Black community was outraged when Bridges was ousted from the bookstore location. He called the building of a national fast-food chain “a remnant of gentrification” and “urban colonization.”

“There was a hidden agenda to displace a viable Black business that was an asset,” Exum said. “It’s a damn shame.”

Bridges closed shop in April 2010 and accepted a teaching post in N.C. Central’s political science department. He was approved for a loan that would have enabled him to move the bookstore to the old Weavers Cleaners & Laundromat location at the north end of Fayetteville Street, he said, but the plan fell through when the place was deemed not suitable due to the cleaning chemicals that had contaminated the building. The State Employees’ Credit Union then offered funding to build a new bookstore from the ground up.

“But we couldn’t find a good place [in the Black community] to break ground,” said Bridges, who says he still wants to reopen the bookstore—a decade after it closed.

During last week’s City Council meeting, Bookman said the new $1.4 million building will have 954 feet of retail space and provide 30 full-time jobs that pay a living wage in a neighborhood that has been targeted for an economic development incentive by the city’s Office of Economic and Workplace Development.

Bookman noted that City staffers are endorsing a project that promises to bring more vitality, along with an increase in Black and Brown business ownership in the historic neighborhood. The fast-food restaurant, he added, is also in keeping with the City’s strategic economic plan of shared equity and prosperity.

Bookman said that along with paying his employees a living wage, they will have health benefits. Moreover, when it comes to COVID-19 protocols, “Checkers really led the path” by not offering indoor dining since the 1980s, he said.

Council Member Freelon noted the business could have a positive impact on the gun violence that has beset the community by providing jobs and opportunity.

“It’s important to do economic development in the area,” Freelon said. “It’s right across the street from St. Joseph’s [African Methodist Episcopal Church], and a historic shopping center.”

Checkers’ offer to help to keep a roof over 30 future employees’ heads is significant. But council member Middleton remains concerned about the neighborhood’s cultural history and the former bookstore’s positive impact on the neighborhood.

He reminded Bookman and his fellow council members that, “The Know wasn’t just about economic power, but also cultural power.”

“That was part of the identity of the neighborhood,” Middleton added, before asking Bookman about his plans to allay concerns that a fast-food restaurant at the location could erase a “cultural footprint in the neighborhood.”

Bookman said that education—with N.C. Central and Hillside High School in close proximity—is “foundational” for him and his family.

“I used to ride my bike in front [of the bookstore],” he replied. “I’m sensitized to what it means to be a part of the community.”

Bookman added that he plans to open more than one Checkers.

“But first and foremost I want to start at this location,” he said. “The priority is to be a presence in the community and continue to be part of the DNA of the community.”

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to [email protected].

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