Mani, Harlem Market shopkeeper


by Elaina Weber

Mani stood inside his rented sales hut in the middle of Malcolm Shabazz’ Harlem Market on 116th street and Malcolm X Boulevard or Lenox Avenue. He had quite the set-up. His merchandise spilled out of the front door of his little shop into the marketplace, and so did his words as he called, “Good morning, how are you, and what can I help you with?”

The things he sells are each unique and interesting in their own way. Wooden instruments, gloves, jewelry, and textiles lie in heaps on tables in and around his store.

“From West Africa, this one, and that’s from South Africa, and here, Mali. And this one, right here, this one is from Niger, my home country. Beautiful!”

A table full of perfume out front tells a story of its own. Bottles upon bottles of these scented oils turned into a half-hour-long conversation and scent-testing session. Scents like and “Water,” “Sexy Kitten,” and “Michelle Obama” seemed to spark the interest of those who walked by on the cold day.

But it’s his smile that really brings people toward him, as warm as the big space heater stuffed into the corner of his booth. Above the heater is a wall full of photographs, also stuffed with smiles.

“No, they’re not family. They’re friends! They’re my friends from all over the country, all over the world,” Mani said with pride. “I never would have met them if I didn’t start working the way I do now.”

Mani’s job involves flying to Africa once a year and bringing home stocks of goods to sell back to people in the U.S. This job allows him to travel with a big group and set up markets all over the United States. Mani pointed to photos as he explained his travels.

“This here is in Detroit, I go there every year. And here’s Chicago; I go there in the summers. I go to Boston, Florida, Atlanta, North Carolina, California… you name it, I’ve been there.”

In fact, Mani has been to 38 states with this job, selling handmade earrings and small, inexpensive rings, mostly. He says the money is good, if he works hard, and the hard work is good for his soul. The people he meets, those that he never again sees and those that stay in his life forever, make each day in the booth worthwhile.

“I bet I’ve been a lot of places you’ve never been, and maybe never will be. So I probably have more friends than you ever will too!”

He probably does.

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