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Colorado’s Only Black-Owned Bookstore Is Ready for the Revolution

Rick Griffith and Debra Johnson lead Shop at MATTER, Denver’s eclectic bookstore that’s so much more. Are we ready to join them?

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Shop at MATTER isn’t just a bookstore. You’d be forgiven for assuming so when you peruse the store on Denver’s Market Street, where a selection of works by American author bell hooks (the pen name for Gloria Jean Watkins) line the shelves next to The New Jim Crow, The Water Dancer, and Antiracist Baby. The shop sells books, yes, but, as co-owner Rick Griffith tells me, “We don’t think our bookstore is about one thing any more than we think Black people are about one thing.”

MATTER is a graphic design consultancy, a print shop, a studio, a stationary outlet, and a cultural touchstone. It’s also the only Black-owned bookstore in Colorado. Artists can stock up on tools and letterpress-printed cards, while teachers shuffle through the rows of what Griffith calls “life-changing documents”—a curated collection of fiction and nonfiction covering social justice, race, gender, LGBTQ+ rights, poetry, philosophy, art, activism, and urban planning. “You know,” Griffith adds, “what’s been left out of education that we need to supplement?”

When we meet (on Zoom, of course) in mid-September, Griffith has his greying hair sculpted into its signature style, two cones on each side of his head. He sits in a cluttered office beside Debra Johnson, his co-owner and partner, who joined the business five years ago. She wears a multicolored blouse, looking every bit the artist in her element.

Listen to them long enough, and you understand how deeply they understand each other. They tease and bicker, but they also finish each other’s sentences thoughtfully, with care and restraint. Having known each other for years, their bond only recently grew into something more. They both lived in northwest Denver; their kids went to preschool together. They both were widowed at a relatively young age. He’s a Black man; she’s a white woman with Black family members. They’re both designers. Griffith’s late wife was a dear friend of Johnson’s, and when she fell gravely ill, it became obvious to Johnson that Griffith would need support. She stepped in immediately. “Death don’t scare me,” she told him.

They lived less than two miles away from each other, Griffith raising his girls and Johnson raising her boys. He stayed in a downtown warehouse, while she maintained an old Victorian. Griffith doesn’t like houses—“too much psychic energy there”—so Johnson went to him.

As Griffith recalls, their conversation went something like this.

Johnson: “My neighbors want to know if I’m gonna run away and join the circus with you.”

“Oh,” he said. He knew immediately what she meant.

“You know, I’d kind of be open to that,” she added.

Today, Johnson tells me, “We had an alignment that was profound and then we fell in love. And then we’re like, oh, well, since we’re in love, and we’re doing this thing, then why don’t we do all of this thing?” She signed on to merge her company—and her life—with his.

They’ve recently become empty-nesters, and now they’re navigating love and business in a pandemic-constricted world. Griffith spends a lot of time on Zoom lately—somewhere around five hours a day on average, he guesses. He conducts consultations with folks in Italy; he collaborates with artists around the country. He’s led MATTER for over two decades, but he’s yet to fall into a complacent rhythm. He almost seemed to expect the pandemic. When it hit, MATTER was ready: He and Johnson designed Zoom cards for customers to hold up during virtual meetings, each with clever sayings like, “Still On Mute,” “Potty Break,” and “Way To Squash That Racist Policy” in big block letters.

They also had a full stock of anti-racist literature ready when, earlier this summer, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police sparked Black Lives Matters protests across the country, including in Denver. Anti-racist reading lists became some of the most popular articles to share among friends and family, with titles including The New Jim Crow and How To Be An Antiracist shooting to the top of many bestseller lists. Griffith was quoted in a Washington Post article about the phenomenon: “I’ll take every person who wants these books. I’ll take every person that wants to join in this work.”

“We’ve certainly adapted, and that’s part of the flourishing of our bookstore … at the same time that the pandemic was happening, people were thirsty for knowledge, and they were thirsty to do things,” Johnson says. “So we were there at the right time.”

But that doesn’t mean MATTER is without struggle or disappointment. Griffith and Johnson know how easy it is for a bookstore to go under. Denver had another Black-owned bookshop, the Hue-Man Experience, when Griffith first moved to the area in 1995, but it closed in 2000 when the owner, Clara Villarosa, relocated to Harlem in New York City. “Someone asked me, ‘what happened to them?’” Griffith says. “And I said, ‘I think they went out of business while we weren’t looking.’ And that is a testament to how [these stores] became sort of obsolete in the time of Amazon, in the time of immediate online book sales, and in how community has changed.”

So MATTER focuses first on community; commerce comes second. They keep their workload steady, sure: Johnson and Griffith both create graphic designs—he tends to focus on overall branding and typography, while she’s the one with an “eagle eye for details.” They’ve developed arts education courses for organizations including Denver Public Schools and the National Endowment for the Arts and they’ve each taught design classes at local schools. They speak at conferences and manage clients via Zoom. They stock books, tools, puzzles, games, a tarot deck, and surrealist housewares that are “intentionally quite odd” at the Market Street storefront. They sell the “second-most comfortable pen in the world.” (The first is too expensive.) Ahead of the election this November, they’re printing VOTE posters for reduced prices and shipping them to battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania. Oh, and they sell pledge signs for business owners to put in their windows that read, “Here, there will always be consequences for racist behavior. Bigots walk. Don’t come back.”

Rick Griffith’s letterpressing work (“I See You Trying”) is featured on Field Notes notebooks. Courtesy of Field Notes Brand

But, above all, Griffith and Johnson build community. They connect thinkers in the city with those in search of information. They solve problems for Black Denverites who are seeking financial education. They teach classes on letterpress printing and democracy. They collaborate with national brands. Earlier this month, popular national notebook brand Field Notes featured Griffith’s work in its new “The United States of Letterpress” collection. 

“I’ve refused to play that game where people say, ‘It’s just business,’” Johnson says. “I don’t believe that. I strongly disagree. It is business, and it’s part of our business to be full of love and empathy. And we will not have it another way.”

So why, Johnson and Griffith both wonder, if they have an empathetic ear to Denver’s most marginalized communities, hasn’t any local elected official reached out to them? “We have zero evidence of City Hall, elected officials, City Council, none of those guys have placed orders here,” Griffith says. “Is it possible that all of them have found another resource to support with their reading of How To Be An Antiracist or Stamped From The Beginning? There’s another resource they would rather spend with? I don’t have to have them come here. I know they’re super busy. I don’t have to have them spend here. But I’m a little bit saddened by that, because the idea that [them buying from the store] could somehow parlay into a quick chat between [customers] and City Council? I mean, that’s exactly what communities are for!”

But that doesn’t make Johnson or Griffith cynical. I ask them if they have concerns about non-Black Denverites performing allyship for the sake of jumping on the BLM bandwagon. What if customers waltz into the store, pick up a book, but never read it? Or read it but don’t go further to support Denver’s Black communities? “We’re not even remotely cynical about people who are trying to read one book and get a lot out of it,” Griffith says. “When you think of activism, it’s easy to think of frustration—because it has this tension around it. But joy as an act of resistance is our perspective.”

So the Shop at MATTER will go on spreading joy through art and oddities, activism, and goofy Zoom cards. They’ll keep the bookshelves stocked for you. And if you’re ready to order, but not sure where to start, they promise they’ll be gentle as you get your feet wet. No such thing as dumb questions. They’ll guide the way to revolution, so long as you keep reading.

If you go: Shop at MATTER is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday 12–5 p.m. for online order pick-ups. If you wish to shop in-person, you can make an appointment by calling 303-893-0330. 2134 Market Street

ELECTION 2020

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