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African artifacts form root of this business

Malkia Maynard thought the request bizarre. Customers were coming into her shop looking for a fruit stand _ a foot-tall ebony wood carving with a bowl on top and sculptures of elephants attached.

"I don't know where they saw it, but they kept asking for it," Ms.Maynard recalled. "When I got them, I sold several of them. I don't know why that of all the things here, but I had a demand."

The request is just one of several for hard-to-find African sculptures that she fills monthly at her African Imports Plus shop on 40th Street at Busch Boulevard.

Tucked away neatly in a strip mall across the street from Busch Gardens theme park, Ms. Maynard and her husband Darryl have been selling African garb and artifacts since last July.

On one wall behind the glass counter filled with jewelry, is a map of the African countries _ among them Nigeria, Egypt, Liberia, Ghana and Kenya _ that ship merchandise to the shop. Ebony carvings and soap stone sculptures of faces and animals sit on glass shelves awaiting customers.

Store aisles are chocked with odds and ends, from Egyptian papyrus paintings to safari carvings to bolts of dyed kente cloth to T-shirts that say "Do the Right Thing" in Swahili.

Most of the store's merchandise comes from Kenya.

Prices range from a few dollars for jewelry and African maps to $700 for a pair of carvings of an Ashanti man and his wife holding a child.

The Maynards' business is an outgrowth of a similar shop in Sarasota, African Imports, owned by Ms. Maynard's mother. A seasonal business _ the shop is open from September to January _ located in that city, African Imports got its start three years ago.

Up until last year, Ms. Maynard had worked part-time for the U.S. Postal Service. Her husband is a UPS truck driver.

Much of their business has come from African-Americans' newfound interest in their African past. "Magazines such as Essence and Ebony show African fashions frequently," Ms. Maynard said.

At first, the Maynards didn't have an immense amount of faith in the trend lasting. That's why they moved to a location near Busch Gardens, to catch tourists who went to the theme park.

"Now, it looks like it is here to stay," Ms. Maynard said.

And frequently, the couple get tourists who just happen to be lost.

"You get a lot of people in here who don't know anything about the continent," she said. "For some, it's a whole new world. Then there are those who are either from or visited the continent. Some come in and ask me which part of the continent I'm from."

The Maynards get a number of unusual requests they aren't able to fill. For example, elephants' hair bracelets and large ivory sculptures are not legally available.

Nor can they get metal-tipped spears shipped because of legal problems.

"A lot of people who remember the 1960s and wearing such things as animal skins, such as a full zebra, are surprised to find we can't get those either," she said.

In fact, the only skins available are small patches on purses that the Maynards can order. They are also able to get snakeskin purses and shoes.

Regular shipments, everything from sisal mats to dashikis, come once every two months. The last shipment was in December, so Ms. Maynard said she is running low on some items.

Some things come without much hint as to where they come from or what they are used for. "With the language barrier _ the business people we deal with may have broken English _ you really aren't sure what it is," Ms. Maynard said.

"That's when I say, "Okay, this is a week's work at the library.' "

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