Oleander and Toyin Agbetu
Oleander: I think I first came to Centerprise when I met Toyin. And, after going there, and seeing the layout and what it did and so on, I then decided to kind of, use that as my coffee stop if I was ever in Dalston, because the books that were there, so you could sit in the bookshop, you know, read. And even, almost use it like a library. [laughs] Which was really interesting. And also sit down and have lunch, or just have a cup of tea. And yeah, that’s how it started.
Toyin: I remember when I was very young finding out about the place. I’m a massive fan of sci-fi, so, I always liked the fact that Centerprise sounded like Star Trek’s Enterprise, so that was always a reason to just go down there and see what was going on. So it was a very, childish [reason] at the time [although] I was also writing and had just become interested in publishing. Then after that I remember it moving to Kingsland Road, which was its last place, and, I would just pop in, pick up the odd book from there, odd newspaper, leaflet and just nosy around. So it was always a [space] at the back of my mind, it was like, on my radar as a quirky community publishing kind of thing that I was just interested in it but [initially] I didn’t really know how political it was.
In fact, my first ever published story was an Anansi story that I made up called Anansi and the Magic Pot, it was some school project that I submitted [into a writing competition], and won. So I was, oh my God! I’ve got published [and my work was on display in Centerprise] which was a nice thing. At that time on television there was also some cartoon called Jamie and Magic Torch, and another called Sinbad where the hero had this magic belt that would make him strong and stuff like that. I loved all those kind of fantastical ideas as a young person. So, Anansi, magic, talking spiders, it was all part of my life in that realm of fantasy and Centerprise just seemed to fit into that somehow. [laughs]
Toyin and Oleander Agbetu are married and were interviewed together. Toyin was born in Hackney while Oleander is originally from South London and moved to the area in about 2000. Toyin knew about Centerprise as a child in the 1970s, and as a young sci-fi fan was attracted to it because Centerprise sounded like Star Trek’s Enterprise. Toyin became more involved in Centerprise from 2005 when his organization Ligali, a Pan-African human rights organization, began holding events there. At first these were informal gatherings; they would show films and have discussions. He says ‘that’s where the community atmosphere of Centerprise kicked in, because people could come in, look at the books, have something to eat, and chill. It had that kind of laid-back attitude.’ Later, just a few years before Centerprise closed in 2012, Toyin hosted regular Sunday meet ups in the coffee bar. He would bring newspapers, Oware and Scrabble, and gradually a group would form to play games and discuss the events of the week.
When their children were small Oleander found the atmosphere in Centerprise ‘easy-going’. She would pop in to relax and have a cup of tea, find out about community events and enjoy the Caribbean food, which ‘reminded me of the elders back home who just knew how to throw down.’ Oleander used Centerprise for meetings for her social enterprise and sold her products in the shop, often helping out by staffing the bookshop. Both discuss taking part in an international literature festival organised by Centerprise called World Power.
Toyin and Oleander stayed with Centerprise till it closed in 2012 and campaigned against its closure. Centerprise felt like an ‘institution’, whose loss is part of a wider trend of diminishing political and cultural space for African-Caribbean people in Hackney. Toyin says that despite the gentrification going on in Hackney, there is a collective memory of resistance that ‘can’t be eradicated because people who grew up in Hackney still remember it. And as long as we remember it, it still exists. All that’s happened is it’s gone underground.’
Interviewed by Rosa Vilbr (now Schling)