Jermain Todd of Mwanzi, the environmentally sustainable St. Louis-based woodworking shop, has an overwhelmingly large studio near Lemp Brewery, with concrete floors and walls lined with large planks of wood, partially completed cabinets, and a strange mixture of power tools that look like drills and machetes. Todd, wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and a pencil wedged under the rim of his flat bill hat, affably walks forward, passing a row of hooks on the wall that hold up several more hats. Todd only uses green or repurposed materials and wood that comes from sustainably harvested forests, which has profoundly shaped what he’s doing now. “I’ve had so many times I could easily just cut corners and make more money, and nobody’s going to know. But it’s just a decision that you make– so I did,” he says, shifting from his default relaxed temperament. “Everything that I do– everything, without compromise, is about sustainability.”
Todd recently spent an afternoon reclaiming wood from the site of the old Checkerdome Arena, where the St. Louis Blues used to play. The planks, filled with tightly spaced rings, provide a natural indicator of their age, some containing 70 rings in a three-inch section. “The tree that these boards were milled from was at least 48″ in diameter, which easily ages it at over 1000 years old,” Todd explains in a blog post on the Mwanzi website. He picked through the wreckage, almost a hundred years since it was constructed. “Part of the history for me personally, with this ancient wood from the Checkerdome Arena is the fact that it was a place that a black person like me would not have been allowed to go inside of to watch a game when it was built in 1929 … I’m telling you, I was fighting back tears. I was so overwhelmed.”
Todd’s initial foray into woodworking was much less emotionally wrought. “I just wanted to screw around and see if I could do it,” he says, seated at a wooden table he built himself. “I watched some YouTube videos, and I knew some people who were already making furniture. I think with anything you make, you’ve got to experiment and try on your own.” Imagining Todd watching YouTube videos to teach himself woodworking, an art that often takes years and years to perfect, is almost comedic. Mwanzi now does cabinetry for 3 to 4 residential kitchens per month and has been commissioned by several St. Louis restaurants: a 14 by 4 foot community table for 4 Hands Brewery (made of the original building’s dock door), cabinetry for the tasting room at Nico, and 22 natural walnut tables for Pi Pizza downtown. “That’s where people started hearing about us,” he says.
“I’ve always been the type of guy that, if I feel really strong about something, I go. I don’t wait. I just go. But I have to feel like I want to do it. I don’t hesitate,” says Todd. “That’s just how I am.” He walks toward the doors that open up to the vast brick expanse of Lemp Brewery, talking about how beautiful it looks there when it rains. Originally from the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean, Todd grew up in Toronto and initially wound up in the Midwest to attend Lindenwood University on a football scholarship. Back then, a future in woodworking seemed anything but imminent. “I’ll never forget the first time that I stepped on the field–I like, broke down in tears,” he says. “And I’m not really the type of guy to do that. It was just an amazing experience. Like, ‘Wow, here I am, so far away.’”
Coming from Toronto, the fifth-largest city in North America, to St. Charles, Missouri was a culture shock, but Todd is emphatic that home can be anywhere. “I wouldn’t have moved to St. Louis if I didn’t feel like the city offered me an opportunity. And it did. And I took it. I seized it. You have to do that; an opportunity is not enough. You have to take that opportunity and do something with it.” He would know. “I’ve been to a lot of places around the world, and people are complaining. People are complaining everywhere; there’s always something. You’re going to have challenges no matter where you are.”
Todd came to Canada with his family when he was 6, and still remembers walking through the airport all those years ago. “I was pulling all the luggage. I was so excited,” he says, as a whimsical look plays across his face. “I remember doing that.” He has a large tattoo on his left forearm that says CAST>TOR>STL, which are the airport abbreviations for St. Lucia, Toronto, and St. Louis, a permanent reminder of the places where he has carved out a home. The family moved into an apartment with no furniture and ate off of placemats instead of dinner plates. “We moved with nothing. I’d come home from school and we’d have dinner. We’d just sit down in the apartment.” Todd’s parents worked tirelessly to ensure opportunities for their children, something he is familiar with firsthand today. “I watched my parents work really hard. Especially my mother,” he says.
Both well-educated, his mother worked her way up in the banking industry while his father worked as an account manager. “There are things that you can’t not have to be successful: drive, ambition, and a good idea,” says Todd, pragmatically. “The rest of it is luck and people willing to trust you, and you have no control over that. A lot of times people feel like that part never happens for them, and certainly I felt that way for a long time.” But when he was 24, Todd landed a job at a bamboo distribution company, K&M Bamboo, much to his surprise, which served as his introduction to building with sustainable materials. “I walked into the interview with this big suit and they were all in jeans and beat up t-shirts,” he remembers.
While working with furniture designers, Todd started experimenting with a woodworking practice of his own. He liked taking scraps of wood and making them into something beautiful, scraps which otherwise would have ended up in trash heaps. He liked working with his hands: the poetry of it, the practicality. “I wouldn’t follow it if I didn’t feel there was an opportunity to make a living out of it. I’m just being honest about that. But I didn’t get into furniture because I felt like I could make money. I went into it because I like doing it.” During the formative stages of Mwanzi, Todd caught another similar break. “I was fortunate to have a guy who believed in the product and had a lot of connections and was able to get me in the door with a couple of local dealers who were willing to carry my product, even though I hadn’t sold anything. It always starts with somebody willing to take a risk on you.”
“My wife is from St. Louis, so we’ve got lots of family here,” says Todd, of how he eventually meandered back here. Now, they have a 7-year-old daughter, Sanai; her name is Swahili for “work of art.” “It’ll change your life,” he says of having a daughter, with unrelenting earnestness. “It’s hard to explain. It just does something to you. It affects everyone in a different way. For me, it really did … If you met her, you’d understand.” Todd and his wife, Jamila, a naturopathic doctor, have now been married for 9 years. “You can’t take anything for granted. And you learn. You learn,” he repeats. “After that initial euphoria when you meet somebody–after that stage, it becomes sustaining that.” Both of them made a decision early on: neither would be in a relationship that required either one of them to give up on their dreams. “It’ll come back eventually and hurt the relationship. It’s better to not even go there. Don’t even start that path. That’s been the conscious thing. We’re both doing exactly what we want to do and we didn’t have to compromise. There’s no guilt.”
Back in 1999, Todd had started a hip hop magazine at Lindenwood, but didn’t like the logo. A friend introduced him to Jamila Owens, who attended UMSL and did graphic design work. “We met at the U-City library,” says Todd, shy now. “Sure enough … one thing led to another.” Upon graduating, Todd continued keep up the magazine while also working a day job as a marketing analyst. “I got in trouble several times while at work, working on my magazine. I guess even at great risk, I was willing to go after stuff that I wanted to do,” he says.
With Jamila still in school and Mwanzi in the initial phases of development, Todd was the only source of income for the new family when Sanai was born. “It was rocky,” he says. “I’d take care of rent, but there were weeks that we’d get by with twenty bucks. I don’t even know how we did it. Twenty dollars to spare. I think what kept me going was I felt like we had a future.” All of a sudden, so much more was riding on each plank of wood than Todd knew how to process. “I feel like you can’t be creative and be effective when you’re thinking about money … it can kill your spirit.”
Todd is admittedly not someone capable of pretending to be fulfilled by something that isn’t engaging him. “I’m the type of guy where I wear my emotions on my sleeve. If I’m not liking something, I can’t mask it … I don’t feel good about it.” Today, Todd is closer to the eye of the tornado than he has ever been. Even with a variety of new projects, including custom furniture for Jilly’s Ice Cream Bar and 16 new tables for residential clients, the early hardships stay with him. “It was about hanging on … not to sound grim, but I think most people realize that life can be really hard,” says Todd, who has certainly experienced his share.
“You think, ‘Why did I bring this child into this world? Because you want only the best for them, but you know they’re going to experience some things in life. Somebody’s going to break their heart. They’re going to have letdowns.” But Todd isn’t cynical; quite the opposite. He believes in taking chances, like others did on him. Before retreating back into a cloud of sawdust and sweat, Todd excitedly discusses his plans to have a formal wedding next year for his upcoming anniversary, as they didn’t have enough money for one when they got married ten years ago in a Toronto court house. But before then, you’ll find Todd and his assistants busily laboring over large planks of wood that will become cabinets, chairs, tables, and anything else a client can dream up.
For more information about Mwanzi, visit www.mwanzi.com.