A Sacramento bookseller takes his heart to the streets
It’s a Thursday night, so poetry flows out of Luna’s Cafe as it has for just over two decades. The crowd breaks and some folks step outside for fresh air.
A man approaches a display of a several dozen books on a table covered in colorful cloth on the sidewalk along 16th Street.
“What’s a good book for someone who doesn’t read?”
The proprietor of the bookshop takes a split second to think, reaches for a book and offers the man his usual warm smile and a recommendation.
He suggests something from the Read Aloud series, for English language learners.
“You got anything smaller?”
No two days at work are the same for Danté Péläyo, a poet and the creator of Divine Styles Pop Up, a roaming bookstore that he sets up alongside cafes, bars and streets throughout Sacramento and the East Bay. In his 2004 Hyundai Sonata, he transports the words of rotating authors like Chuck Palahniuk, Maya Angelou and Frantz Fanon straight to the people. Depending on his inventory and where he sets up shop, sometimes even his windshield is covered with neatly organized literature.
“I want to meet whoever walks down these streets,” he says. “I really want this to be for the community.”
Péläyo was raised in Oakland and Sacramento, one of two sons of Dr. Linda Goodrich, who grew up during the civil rights movement and was passionate about dance. At the demand of her Depression-era mother, Goodrich first got a more practical master’s degree in English before earning her second MFA in dance. She took a job teaching dance at Sacramento State University, where she helped develop and was artistic director for Sacramento/Black Art of Dance. There is no question for Péläyo, now 35, about where his drive comes from.
“Honestly, I just feel like I’m following my mother’s legacy,” he says. “I always felt like I was pressured to do something epic. In my eyes, this is epic.”
Connection to his African-American and Filipino heritage is central to Péläyo’s identity. He was influenced early on by black activist writers like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey. A high school trip to Ghana put him deeper in touch with his African roots.
“I never really had to deal with … an identity crisis trying to figure out who I was because I grew up knowing—knowing I was black and Filipino,” he says.
So he offers the people much more than books.
Those who pass the bookshop are generally intrigued by its out-of-placeness. Even if they don’t buy a book, they may still leave with something. Outside Luna’s, a few young women browse the giveaway section of items neatly arranged in small baskets: snacks, lotions, condoms. Péläyo’s tells them they’re all up for grabs. They happily grab a few condoms and a bottle of water.
“He’s setting a good example for what it is to be part of the community,” says Sacramento poet Monique Semone. “Danté’s not rich, and to give back in the way he does … he’s a symbol of doing what you can no matter what you have.”
At 19, Péläyo moved to a place known to attract dreamers: New York City. He took out student loans to attend a for-profit college in graphic design, but soon wound up without housing and in a shelter. He got a job at Starbucks, but sacrificed opportunities to recite subway poetry because he didn’t want his coworkers or customers to judge him for busking. After spending his 20s in New York City and some time in Chicago, he returned to Sacramento, where he fell into a depression.
“I was out here in Sac and I felt like I totally failed,” he says. “I was so determined on making it out there.”
He went through bouts of self-isolation, a place where he never wants to return.
“My whole hope is that I don’t ever get back there,” he says. “I try to do all this good stuff so maybe I don’t go back to that dark place.”
His poetry and his community pulled him up. While he hosted a workshop on making chapbooks (homemade poetry zines), his students helped him to heal.
“They really came at a time when I needed them and they got me out,” he says. They talked about spoken word, and they encouraged him to return to the city’s open mics after going MIA. His poetry became more uplifting.
“Most of the time we’re speaking to ourselves (through poetry),” he says. “Lift yourself up, turn your life around.”
He was back at it, participating in and hosting open mics and reaching out to his community in new ways.
Divine Styles, which he ran off and on since 2013, got a reboot when Péläyo was invited to participate in the weekly Love Market in Oak Park in early 2017. He also ran #BlackUber, a one-man taxi service. He envisions stories from those trips one day inspiring a poetry book and continues to provide #BlackUber rides.
Last year, he launched The Oak Park Open Air Open Mic, a Sunday afternoon showcase each week at a different spot in the neighborhood. Going on 47 weeks of #TOPOAOM, Péläyo arranges for one featured spoken word voice each week.
“The poetry you gotta catch,” he says on a gray Sunday afternoon on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
He works in hashtags, coining phrases like #MakeAmerikkkaLiterateAgain in 2016, and wants to build a major online following so people can take in the “virtual open-mic” from anywhere with an internet connection.
Because of its grassroots, pop-up nature, TOPOAOM doesn’t always pull large crowds. But the impact of Péläyo’s work is felt by the artists and audience who attend.
Andorian Ramsey is an Oakland-based poet recently featured at TOPOAOM.
“For me to drive 100 miles … I’ll do that for the art,” Ramsey says. “Danté, what he brings to every town he goes to is organic.”
Andru Defeye, a fellow spoken word artist, founder of ZFG Promotions and communications director with Sol Collective, gives Péläyo credit for being ahead of the curve.
“Danté is a pop-up pioneer out here,” says Defeye. “Before the ’creative economy,’ before pop-up was a buzz word in the city of Sacramento, Danté was popping up and getting harassed by the police, shut down and just continued to do it,” he says.
Together, Defeye and Péläyo founded the Intersection in 2017, an outdoor open-mic at 35th and Broadway in Oak Park each Monday and a regular site of the Divine Style Pop Up.
Then, also last year, Defeye applied for an Oak Park Sol Grant for Péläyo’s bookshop. The nonprofit awarded him $300, a grant that went toward more books and general improvements to the shop.
“He wants to give away a lot of stuff,” Defeye says with a laugh, and that takes funding. He sees common goals between Sol Collective and Péläyo’s work—promoting education, community empowerment. But Sol Collective has its own building, while Péläyo has to physically create new places for his work, every time.
“Danté kind of creates his own safe space out on the street corners wherever he goes,” Defeye says. “He’s a great mentor, he comes from great mentors. … He is a conduit for something greater than himself.”
In early January, Péläyo stepped onto his biggest platform yet: a sold-out Kings game at the Golden 1 Arena.
During the Jan. 11 halftime show in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr., Péläyo was invited to perform. He stepped onto the court and waved to the large audience. His piece “King” was written in a Black Lives Matter notebook, which event organizers asked him to cover for the reading. He recited the piece.
“Sunlight shine on my flow and sound, / Rise up people we are glory bound. Master, master, I am my king, / I rule my life and I shine my being.”
When he finished, he took a knee.
Defeye says the poetry scene is rich in Sacramento, and Dante’s work elevates everyone involved.
“We all thought there was a ceiling here until Dante played the arena,” says Defeye. “Then we realized that’s the ceiling for poetry.”