It is no ordinary bookstore. The Yoruba Book Center is a rare space combined with a record store. It’s really two stores in one. Owned by two brothers, Roger and Rudy Francis, the venture is more than just business. It has been a life long commitment since 1968 when they started operations.
The store is named for the Yoruba in Nigeria, some kind of spiritual reclamation for a black diaspora. In the past, the brothers, had other locations in New York city. They have since closed down. The Africa Record Center location, in Nostrand Avenue, East FlatBush remains the mainstay of their business. It has been a vantage point for them to witness the evolution of New York.
They take their role seriously as custodians of African and black cultures. Roger Francis once told New York Times that ‘We introduced African music to the United States. I will make that statement humbly but boastfully at the same time.’
The humble boast could be true as the Francis brothers probably own the biggest vinyl collection of African music in New York. Between them, they have an encyclopedic knowledge of African diaspora culture and music. As you talk to one of them, the other is attentive, waiting to weigh in or finish the other’s sentences.
For a long while, the backroom of the store used to function as a music recording studio for the Makossa label they owned. It was the first place where records by giants of African music — Manu Dibango, Fela Kuti, Franco and others — could be found in New York.
The store is a sanctuary for many in search of their ‘African soul.’ Its foot traffic is mainly from a niche audience — African music afficianados and specialists, academics, artists, journalists, and people curious about black cultures. One wall has racks full of pasteboard-cover LP’s, the other side has floor to ceiling shelves with books.
Besides rare books on history, spirituality, culture, vinyl records, they also sell various cultural artifacts. It’s one of the few places in New York with a decent supply of African music and books, a landmark that sadly exists on the city’s cultural fringe.