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Pair of Matchmakers in Love With Their Heritage

Joe Gindratt’s just browsing. He’s never seen a place like this. Portraits of Malcolm X and other famous black Americans hang on the walls. The bookshelves proffer lessons in black history, culture, identity, and black most everything else. The clothing is imported from Nigeria. The dolls are dark-skinned.

Close to anything you’d like to find with an African-American theme, you can find it here, at Our Learning Tree.

Maybe even a husband or a wife.

“Wait a minute,” owner Ken Johnson says to Joe as he’s about to head for the door. “Are you married? You single?”

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Joe gives this guy a sly smile, like he’s wondering what he’s got in mind. He allows that he’s unattached.

“Oh, I have someone for you!” Ken’s wife, Jean, comes back, very quick on the draw. Joe’s really grinning now, turning his head, looking from side to side like he’s happened onto a “Candid Camera” scene. Only this is Joe’s kind of fun.

“I’m 33!” he says, lying bald. He’s a 56 year-old free-lance photographer, and a grandfather of two. “But look how good I look!” he says.

In a minute Joe’s signing the store’s mailing list. And he’s clutching a flyer for the store’s valentine ball. It will be at the ball, Ken and Jean are hoping, that Cupid will really be shooting wild.

“Gee, this is a blessing,” Joe tells me. “I thank God that they’re here.”

I’ve heard this before, which is why I’ve come to Rialto to see for myself. Ken and Jean Johnson, who opened their small store a year and a half ago, say they’ve made a commitment to “provide for the needs of the community.”

And, among other things, the community wants to fall in love.

“We hear so often in our community that there aren’t any good men, that there aren’t many women,” says Ken. “We know better. And if we have this knowledge, we want to share it.”

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Did I mention that the Johnsons do this for free? (Although a few photographs of the happy couple would be nice.)

“The Love Connection” the couple call their matchmaking service, which they started last fall. There are no videos, no photographs, no fingerprints or anything high tech. (But if this thing really takes off, who can tell?)

What happens is Jean gets a feeling as to who will hit it off with whom, then she discreetly verifies pertinent facts. She takes home the index card file of prospects every night and rings them up all the time. She gets to understand what they are really looking for in a mate and what kind of people they are.

In other words, new customers of Our Learning Tree beware: Jean will be checking you out.

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“You look at the kind of books they look at,” she says. “You get a sense of who they are. If they are interested in learning about their culture, you know that they are pretty decent people.”

Yeah, well, suppose some guy just ogles the pictures on this calendar of black beauties at the beach?

“No way!” Jean says. “He’s out! And if they just look at T-shirts and don’t care anything about the books, we don’t even put him on the list.”

Clearly, the Johnsons have elevated the idea of customer service to a new height. They also sponsor study groups, workshops, concerts, lectures, fashion shows and I’m leaving a lot out.

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“We want to create a customer for life,” says Ken, who is 31. And, of course, they’re always crossing their fingers that their customers will have it in their hearts to have kids.

“The main thing is to save the African-American family,” says Jean, who’s 27 and thinking about kids herself. “What with the divorce rate the way it is, all the stress, you have to start with the basic unit. And both people have to go in with the same intention.”

So far, one couple that the Johnsons have set up is getting married in June. About half of the 30 or so prospects in Jean’s file of index cards are still dating, and the rest are eager for more opportunity to knock.

And, naturally, Valentine’s Day seems like a propitious time for increasing the odds. That’s why they are throwing the ball; several first dates have already been set up.

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Ken and Jean even met on Valentine’s Day themselves. Three months later, they were husband and wife. In May, it will be six years.

“We were at church,” Jean explains. “I had organized this singles group and I was giving a talk called ‘What Is Love.’ It was Ken’s first time there and he was the only one listening, looking at me the whole time. I looked at the other guys and they were all eating.”

Ken, did you go to church for the Lord or for a wife?

“For the Lord to find me a wife,” he says.

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And, lest anyone be wondering, this is not just a black thing. “I personally don’t believe in the concept of race,” says Ken. “There is only one race: the human race. This is the ultimate goal. What we are talking about is culture, not race.”

“Our concept of relationships just doesn’t apply to black people,” says Jean. “As long as you know who you are, as long as you have self-esteem and respect for other people, that’s what counts.”

“The Love Connection” sounds about right.


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