10 21 2014
  9:54 pm  
     •     
McMenamins

Tom Boothe (right) and Darrel Griffith (left)
 

Two old friends sit in a corner of Reflections Coffeehouse. If you closed your eyes to listen to their exchange, you'd think the place was packed. However, there are only four people in the room, including this reporter.

Suddenly one man calls over to the counter.

"Young man come over here," says Darrel Griffith. "You remind me of my grandson."

He and longtime friend Tom Boothe are regulars at Reflections. They come to drink coffee, talk about current events and trade jokes. The men have become known personalities at the store. However, their days of convening at Reflections/Talking Drum Bookstore are coming to a close.

After 17 years, the store will be closing at the end of June, to the dismay of many in Portland's Black community.

Reflections/Talking Drum owner Gloria McMurtry
Photo by K. Kendall

"This means the demise of one more Black business that will shrink the community even smaller," says Boothe. "I'm just glad someone is covering this. So often these things just happen."

Reflections/Talking Drum has served as a Black hub and meeting place for a variety of community members in Northeast Portland. Neighbors, community organizers and politicians alike have come to embrace the store as the place of choice to gather and exchange the news of the day.

Boothe has been a regular at Reflections for the last two years but he's resided in Portland since 1963. Throughout his years in Northeast Portland, he says few Black businesses have survived as long. He notes that the surrounding community has transformed over the years, with many Blacks moving out to East Portland and Gresham.

Discussion sessions for 'The New Jim Crow'
were held inside Talking Drum Bookstore

Photo by K. Kendall

Boothe has to get his points out in bits and pieces because Griffith constantly prods him with jokes and the insults that someone would only accept from a true friend.

"We piss each other off and have a good time," says Griffith. "We come in here and solve all the world's problems."

Griffith's company Dagri helped install the countertop for Reflections and painted the original green floors when the store opened in 1995.

It's not long before he's trading barbs with Reflections owner Gloria McMurtry.

After relocating to the Talking Drum Bookstore to get away from Griffith, who McMurtry affectionately calls a "loudmouth," she describes the history of the business she "fell into by chance."

She moved to Northeast Portland from Detroit by way of Jackson, Miss., about 20 years ago.

McMurtry collaborated with Eddie Bryant, O.B. Hill and Joe McHenry, who ended up bowing out early, to start Reflections and take over the bookstore. She says she has run the business singlehandedly for the last eight or nine years.

Although the demographics have changed drastically over her time here, she says the store has never ceased serving an integral part in the community.

"As a Black book store, we have books you wouldn't find at Barnes & Noble or Powell's," says McMurtry. "The community uses it to communicate, as well as have meetings."

The store has been forced to close at the end of June because the business is no longer able to support itself. A combination of gentrification and exhaustion on the part of McMurtry, have led her to decide it's time to leave.

Ahjamu Umi participating in a foreclosure forum
 

Individuals and groups that have utilized the bookstore vary and represent different pieces of the community.

Ahjamu Umi of Occupy Northeast "The Black Working Group," says the group got its start at Reflections in December of last year. They meet at the store every Saturday afternoon to plan actions around foreclosure resistance and stopping police brutality.

Although their work against foreclosures lends them people's homes to operate out of, Umi, who is originally from San Francisco, says Reflections provides a safe space where people can express themselves.

Groundwork Portland has been holding its
meetings in Talking Drum Bookstore

Photo by K. Kendall


"Every city has a Reflections," says Umi. "Unlike the Bay Area, Reflections is one of the only ones here. It's going to leave a void in the community because there aren't that many places where African-Americans can meet. There are a lot of places we can go but people don't feel as comfortable."

Reflections/Talking Drum has also supported the work of Groundwork Portland, a group that works with neighborhoods with concentrations of low-income individuals and people of color to give them a voice in developing and planning.

According to program director Cassie Cohen, the community hub has been involved in Groundwork's efforts interact with youth from King and DaVinci schools to develop the Emerson Street Garden and outdoor learning center. Also, their monthly meetings at the store have given the group more opportunities to reach out to community members they might not otherwise interact with.

Chabre Vickers, co-chair of Groundwork Portland
 

"We've spent time there getting to know folks," says Cohen. "We've recruited a board member or two from meeting at Reflections."

Her colleague and co-chair of Groundwork, Chabre Vickers, adds that the store has yielded a space for people living outside of the community to come back to and stay involved.

Although she grew up in Northeast Portland, when she moved back to Oregon after college, she settled in Tualatin.

Vickers heard about Reflections "haphazard" but says McMurtry made her feel at home.

"I always made a point to come to Reflections," she says. "The atmosphere puts the community at ease.  You always see someone you know."

Vickers says the space helped bring the community to take a serious look at brownfields, a term Groundwork uses for land that might be contaminated.

Rep. Lew Frederick of House District 43 has had a number of events at the store, most notably his monthly "Chat with Lew" town halls.

He found out about Talking Drum back in the 70s and started coming more regularly when Reflections opened. Echoing others' sentiments, he says it has provided a space where it is easy to talk with his constituents.

Rep. Lew Frederick of
House District 43

 

Frederick has even brought political figures Gov. John Kitzhaber and gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley to the store, which he says made an incredible impression on both.

"For people not in the community, it helps them to understand the community better," he says. "It's different when you have to deal with people face to face in their comfort zone."

A number of people have expressed interest in maintaining the space. Although she acknowledges the store as a vital part of the community, McMurtry says she doesn't want its next incarnation to be a giveaway. If someone can take over the business and make money, she would love to see that happen.

Frederick has said he would take it over if he had the money. Griffith expressed interest but admitted he has concerns about running a business with his heart condition. Capuia has suggested renting the store out as an office space for aspiring entrepreneurs trying to get their businesses off the ground. According to Vickers, there have been some impromptu meetings at Reflections with concerned community members to brainstorm what the best options will be.

Everyone acknowledges that having a community space for African-Americans is a priority, wherever that may be.

Above all, they express gratitude to McMurtry and the others who started the business 17 years ago for providing them with a meeting place that will be missed by many in the community.

"I just want to say thank you to the community at large," says McMurtry. "They've always shown their appreciation. They've been great customers."

 

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