People told Calvin and Linet Winbush that their store selling African imports wouldn’t last long when they opened it five years ago. But since then, they have expanded LiBush International Connections Africa in Old Sacramento to four times the space they originally leased.
“Our product is unique and authentic, and it’s all handmade,” Linet told me. “No two items are alike. The other thing is ... we don’t have too many African stores in Sacramento. A lot of people who come here have traveled to Africa, and they come and see things that they didn’t have room to bring back.”
Linet was born and reared in Kenya’s Vihiga district, not far from Lake Victoria. She came to the United States in 1989 for college and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Phoenix. But she arrived in the United States with little more than $25 in her pocket, she said, and she went to a Sears store looking for work.
After an interview, she said, a manager there told her that she was going to hire her because she was so green that she felt she could mold her into the model employee. Linet went on to become a manager for the retail store, but as Sears struggled financially in 2008, she found herself at a crossroads in her career. She started selling handmade African wares at craft shows, she said, but she had always wanted to open a brick-and-mortar store where she could sell the goods.
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She talked with her husband, Calvin, and together they decided to test the market in 2011 with a tiny store, roughly 600 square feet, on Front Street in Old Sacramento. They did so well in their first year, Calvin said, that another landlord invited them to move into a larger space in his building in the historic district. They took double the space in 2012, and then when a neighboring tenant moved out in 2014, they took that space as well and expanded their inventory into 2,422 square feet.
“More and more people were coming and they were looking for more products,” Calvin said. “We had to have the space to have the product for them. You go into a lot of stores here, and you see that they’re packed with stuff. At some of them, you get claustrophobia. You walk in and you can’t see the products because they have so many products. I don’t believe in that. I believe we should have the space to be able to display our products, so people can see and appreciate the art and beauty of them.”
While they are successful now, Calvin said, they heard from a number of skeptics in the beginning, people who told them that there wouldn’t be enough demand for their imports in the Sacramento region. Today, the store at 112 K St. sells myriad products: mud cloth, muumuus, dashikis, handbags, bracelets, soapstone sculptures, string art, bow ties made with kente cloth, body oils, natural soaps, musical instruments such as balafons and tic-toc drums, among them. The inventory of earrings alone, Calvin said, is more than 1,000 pairs.
On a recent tour of the store, he stopped near artwork of African landscapes and exotic animals: “These are what you call banana fiber art. They’re made from the leaves of the banana tree. ... They take the leaves. They let them age, and they take a whole leaf and glue the leaf on the board. Then they cut out various images (from other leaves) and glue those on top of that one leaf. It’s what you would call overlay art.”
Calvin, who retired after 33 years in ground operations at Northwest Airlines, said his wife is the “international connection” referenced in the store’s name, noting that she has developed contacts in a number of African nations to source goods. Products come from not only Kenya but also Ethiopia, Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.
The couple sell some products that benefit particular African charities. Proceeds from the sale of some of their baskets, for instance, benefit Global Wells, an organization dedicated to installing clean water wells in Africa. The Winbushes also recently launched a charity of their own, LiBush International Outreach, they said, which will focus on improving infrastructure, supporting orphanages and fostering agriculture in Kenya.