Nandi’s Knowledge Café and Ray’s Grill
By Eric T. Campbell
The Michigan Citizen
There’s a new spot in Highland Park that has already made a name for itself as a place to gather for the nurturing of the mind and the body. Open just a month now, Nandi’s Knowledge Café is the collaboration of Nandi and fiancé Ray McDonald. Their storefront, located on Woodward just south of Glendale, is a seamless combination of used bookstore in the front and a small diner, Ray’s Grill, in the back. They entered into the business together after deciding Ray’s backyard cooking and Nandi’s passion for rare books could unite to offer something special to the neighborhood.
“I always wanted a place where people could come and just eat and meet,” says Nandi. She’s sold different African related products and art in the past as a vendor, but there’s no doubt as to where her passion rests. The buying of rare and used books in order to share them with her clientele has become more than a hobby.
“Hard to find Black books is my main focus,” Nandi said. “I’m a collector but I’m also here to pass the knowledge on.”
At first glance, the amply filled shelves appear humble in their selection — but on closer examination rarely found treasures reveal themselves in large numbers. The classic street novel series by Detroit legend Donald Goines is represented not far from the political musings of Cornel West.
The Prison Letters of George Jackson are found right across from the historical Africa’s Gift to America. There’s a rack of classic paperbacks including Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Although many of the titles reflect the African experience in this country, volumes rooted in traditional Americana are found as well, Dickens, Twain, Dostoyevsky and Faust just to name a few.
“Books are my business now, more so than the art,” says Nandi.
Nandi and Ray have long ties to the area, explaining the café’s connection to the Highland Park community.
They met when they both had children attending Highland Park High School. On any given day you’ll find members of the Highland Park High football team playing cards and listening to the jazz music that is a staple at ‘Nandi’s’.
The atmosphere literally spills out the front door, where café style chairs and tables adorn the sidewalk.
Members of the Highland Park City Council, including Dr. Ameenah Omar, and City Hall workers are regulars for lunch and the banana pudding, whose recipe was donated by a devoted Highland Park elder one day.
“She said, ‘Can I pass on my recipe for banana pudding? It’s not going to cost you anything — people want my recipe and I’m just going to give it to you,’” Nandi related.
It’s that interaction between buyer and proprietor that distinguishes the neighborhood café from the fast food franchise.
Ray’s grill is determined to offer a substantial plate of home cooking for less than ten dollars and he’s willing to make custom changes in the menu if time allows. The grill serves filet of tilapia, perch, whiting or catfish combined with spaghetti, coleslaw and bread all for $7.
On the weekends you’ll find Ray grilling beef ribs and beef hot dogs.
The Knowledge Café has taken on the responsibility of organizing mentoring for the neighborhood’s youth with open forums that focus on generational wisdom. Every third Saturday of the month they meet for a men and sons breakfast and ‘round table’ and share stories as well as experiences.
“We just try to develop some positive thoughts,” says McDonald. “So they can get on some positive directions in their lives.”
Regular poetry readings are also on the schedule at the café.
Nandi and Ray’s presence on the block now joins several others including The Black Whole African boutique a couple of doors down. Carl Pettway, who owns the row of buildings, has committed to refurbishing the front of the entire row, including new signs and hanging lights.
“It’s going to be a total façade improvement program,” Pettway told the Michigan Citizen. “We’re excited to see some very positive and uplifting things happening on the block.”
The true entrepreneurial spirit —one that involves the neighborhood and doesn’t shut it out — is alive and well in Highland Park with the support of the entire community.
“I’m not afraid to dream,” says Nandi. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.”
Nandi’s Knowledge Café is located at 12511 Woodward Ave. in Highland Park. Hours of operation are Mon-Th 10 am-7pm, Fri. 10am-12noon, Sat. 9am-10pm. Call Nandi or Ray for more details at 313-865-1288