Miss Leola Says Goodbye
As music stores went, it wasn’t much, but it was a fixture in Omaha’s African-American North Omaha community, and when owner Leola McDonald decided to close her Leola’s Records and Tapes the decision was met by an outpouring of regret and fond memories. I did this short piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) in the wake of her announcement she was closing shop. It appeared not long after a cover profile I did on Leola for the same paper. I will soon be posting that cover. She and her store are missed.
Miss Leola Says Goodbye
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Miss Leola is moving on and the African-American community she served for decades at Leola’s Records and Tapes is treating her retirement as a loss akin to a death. Since Leola McDonald announced she’s closing her music store at 5625 Ames Avenue, mourners have filed in to pay their respects.
Felix Hall was among them last Friday. “What’s up, doc, how ya’ doin’?” Leola greeted the middle-aged man from behind the counter. “Oh, pretty good,” said Hall, before choking up to proclaim, “I saw in the news you were going out of business and I just had to come in to say goodbye.” “Well, thank you, that was nice of you,” a visibly moved Leola said.
It’s been like that now for weeks.
Attired in slacks and a T-shirt imprinted with aphorisms to motherhood, Leola, a mother and grandmother, has been a surrogate parent for neighborhood kids who “grew up” in her store. One of these, Marcus Roach, 18, said he and his posse have “been coming up here for years. A lot of people come up here. Yeah, everybody knows Miss Leola.”
Jason Fisher, 31, owner of the building housing Leola’s and his own multi-media company downstairs, can attest to the respect she holds.
“Miss Leola is known immensely throughout the north Omaha community. It’s unreal what kind of impact you can have on a community in 30 years. Just about everybody knows her like she’s the President,” he said.
“I think she’s kind of like the community’s grandma,” said granddaughter Mercedes Smith. “She’s always looked out for everybody that came to her…People having a bad day come in and talk to her because they know she’ll make them feel better about who they are. She’s a good person.”
“Momma’s real…always lovin’ and always levelin’ with someone,” her son Seth Smith said. Mercedes feels her grandma’s personal stamp will make her missed. “This is not like Sam Goodies or any of the other (independent) music stores closing around the country. She’s the cornerstone of the community.” “I don’t understand it, she’s been here forever,” a young man in search of a CD said.
Leola doesn’t want to leave, but business has lagged. “In the last two years I’ve seen it go down, down, down…” she said. National chains hurt enough, but there’s no competing with music pirates. “It’s so much on the streets now,” she said. The cruelest rub is when black marketeers get source material from Leola’s to burn and then under sell her with it. “It’s just sad that somebody who always tried to be fair and right and correct in everything she did has to suffer,” Smith said.
The woman who’s become an institution is pragmatic about it all. “I wanted it to last a little bit longer, but I guess my biggest problem is I haven’t moved with the times,” Leola said. “I’m still over there, while the times are over here. It happened and I didn’t even realize it. I’m saddened with it and I will miss it. I enjoyed what I was doing and if I was a little bit younger I’d still be doing it.
“I was young when I started and I ain’t young no more — no parts of it.”
Her legacy and her 70th birthday will be celebrated August 11 with a 6:30 p.m. reception at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N 24th Street.
But, as Fischer noted, “This isn’t the end of Leola’s, it’s a new beginning.” Soon after Leola closes shop around August 10, he plans to make renovations to the existing space and reopen as Leola’s Urban Avenue, a retail music store “with a singular focus on independent artists, underground music and diversified merchandising.” As for the friend Leola was to the community, he’ll try to represent. “We’ll try to keep it going,” he said.He’s keeping Leola’s in the title to play off her good name and “to carry that torch for her and her family.”
“It gives me a good feeling that somebody cares enough about me to keep the name. I appreciate it. He’s been great to me,” Leola said of Fischer.
Beyond the name, she’s sure a little piece of her will remain in the new store. “I think it will,” she said. She plans to move to Calif., where she has family.
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Family Thing, Bryant-Fisher Family Reunion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)