Columbia residents Judith Pitt-Hunter and Lewis E. Andrews are helping to tend the flame of black culture in Howard County.

She is the owner of the African-American Art Gallery in Columbia's Village of Owen Brown. He is the owner of the Original Man Bookstore. He has rented space in her two-story gallery on Cradlerock Way.

"There's nothing like it in Howard County," said Ms. Pitt-Hunter of the twin businesses catering to black interests in one location. "Usually, customers are pleasantly surprised that we are here."

The two run what amounts to the only sizable retail establishment in Howard County that deals exclusively in art and materials that emphasize African and African-American heritage and culture.

On a smaller scale, a stand at The Mall at Columbia sells black-oriented books and merchandise. The Maryland Museum of African Art on Vantage Point Way and the Howard County Center of African-American Culture in Town Center both offer exhibits.

But in the Owen Brown building, customers can buy paintings, prints, sculptures, books, clothing, jewelry, toys, and other items. They also can visit the African-American Bridal Shop on the bottom floor to get information and accessories for wedding ceremonies that reflect African-American traditions.

The establishments are so rich in black history that even people from Baltimore and Washington frequent them, making them an unusual cultural magnet in a predominantly white county.

Most such bookstores in the United States are found in the inner cities or in regions with large black populations, said said Russell Adams, chair of the Afro-American Studies department at Howard University in Washington.

In Howard County, blacks make up 12 percent of the population.

But Dr. Adams said that racism and deteriorating economic conditions for blacks have led even suburban members of the black middle class suburbs to seek out such centers.

Ms. Pitt-Hunter got the idea for the gallery after friends visited her Columbia home in the mid-1980s and asked her about her personal art collection. The retired Department of Veterans Affairs chief of social work services minored in art and majored in social work at Fisk University.

Having outgrown a room in a boutique in Columbia from that she rented from September 1988 to April 1989, she used some of savings and in April 1989 moved into the 10,000-square-feet Owen Brown building.

She stocks hundreds of pieces by black artists. Prices range from $10 for an unframed print to $2,000 for an original.

"We have art from just about all of the African-American artists on the market," Ms. Pitt-Hunter said, adding if she doesn't she can order it.

A few years ago, Ms. Pitt-Hunter met Mr. Andrews, who was selling books from his home and at vendor shows, at a Delta Sigma Theta sorority meeting.

It dawned on her that people who like art tend to like books. "That proved to be true," she said.

In Mr. Andrew's cozy bookstore, browsers can find children's literature, history books and comic books with black action heroes, such as, "Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline."

They also can find black dolls, jewelry and cosmetics.

The bookstore is "helping people reconnect with their culture in a special way," said Mr. Andrews, who added that mainstream bookstores don't offer a wide variety of black-oriented books.

The retired manager at NASA began to sell Afrocentric books because he was concerned about images of blacks in the media.

"I began to believe there was a need to have information as well as artifacts available for our people to touch, read, feel . . . to get a better picture of themselves," he said.

Neither expects to make a fortune in their businesses, which do most of their trade on holidays and weekends. But "we're able to hold our own," Ms. Pitt-Hunter said, adding other similar businesses have had to close.

Saturday, Walt Sears of Columbia visited the art gallery with his children, Courtney, 10, and Vincent, 12. He had come to the gallery looking for a popular print called "The Moorish Chieftain."

"This was the only place I knew I could get it," Mr. Sears said.

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