an artist's rendering of a building that the Nito Cafe would possibly be sited in; chicago at night
An artist’s rendering of the future Nito Café. Credit: Courtesy Tayler Tillman

In Japan, manga cafes are innumerous. They are places where manga or anime fans can enjoy snacks and refreshments while reading or spending time together. Somehow, despite the culture’s popularity in the United States, there are none of these types of cafes around—until now. 

Chicagoan Tayler Tillman wants to bring these Japanese mainstays stateside with Nito Café. As a lifelong fan of Japanese comics (manga) and animation (anime), Tillman knows that the community in and around Chicago can support an endeavor like Nito Café. Tillman graduated from Chicago’s Saint Xavier University with both a biology degree and an MBA, and she currently works for Loyola University as the office manager in Business Career Services. 

She loves showing elements of Japanese culture to people, which is one reason she feels compelled to open Nito—particularly after discovering an introverted YouTuber who spends a lot of time in manga cafes in Japan because they’re comfortable for him. “The idea of being an introvert in that space [got me] thinking about how I could make that idea better and how I can elevate it to this community,” Tillman says. 

An introduction video that Tillman created earlier this year.

Per a recent tweet from Nito, a manga cafe is a place where visitors can pay an entry fee, usually the equivalent of $1-$4, to spend time in rooms in the cafe where they can read the manga. The cafes additionally sell snacks, drinks, and have other things to do like play video games or watch shows or movies. Sometimes you can even stay overnight in the cafe. While that isn’t exactly what Tillman has in mind, Nito Café is inspired by that structure. She wants her space to be a “twist” on a manga cafe that expands beyond Japanese culture/anime/manga. 

Though anime and manga fans might not be visible unless a convention like the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo (C2E2) or Anime Central is in town, Tillman says that there are many fans of both manga and anime in our area. 

“There are a lot of kids or people [who] fail to realize that others are into anime,” Tillman explains. “They just don’t have that outlet to show it. So I really feel like things like this and just instilling that to the youth will give them something to really expect, it’ll give them a creative outlet, and [they] will be around peers or mentors that can show them the way. We’ll get them into the arts [and] the languages. That’s why spaces like this are very, very important.” 

Tillman says that the cafe will provide a place for camaraderie. Young anime and manga fans are sometimes subject to bullying by their peers even though art and animation are becoming more mainstream. Tillman says she hears a lot of stories about fans being bullied and that, in providing space for them to gather together, she hopes they’ll gain a greater sense of community. She also doesn’t want it to be strictly catering to Japanese fandoms either; it’s a place where proud nerds of all kinds can gather together.

Nito Café is still in its funding phase on Indiegogo with a flexible goal of $295,000. They originally started a GoFundMe where they raised over $2,000. Per their Indiegogo, the Café will include 20 private multi-use rooms like their Japanese inspiration. Nito Café will serve themed snacks at their cozy coffee bar and feature an “expansive” manga library and a “gallery featuring works from anime and popular pop culture favorites from comics and film.” They will also have an internet cafe style element with PCs for public use. 

Ideally, Tillman wants the space to be functional for events as well. She’s hoping to be another venue for cosplayers to show off their costumes, which isn’t something they can often do outside of attending conventions. Nito Café is going to be a space where folks can be themselves without fear of judgment in a way that just isn’t possible in other venues. 

Nito Café
Keep up with Nito Café’s progress at their Twitter, Indiegogo, Instagram, and Facebook pages.

Snapshots of Tillman along with the renderings of the Nito Café space have gone viral a few times over the last few months on social media. People on social media often praise both the fact that she is a Black woman entrepreneur and that she is opening the first cafe of its kind in the country. Those posts have drummed up the attention Nito Café needs to become a reality in the city. She hopes that the centrality of Chicago as well as the number of fans living in the area will help spur other iterations of Nito Café in other parts of the country as well to inspire their nerd communities. 

“What I am trying to do is bring the people that weren’t already aware of this community together—to put it on the map,” Tillman says. “I want to bring awareness [to this community] and to let people know that it’s OK to be who you are. Especially diverse groups like the Blerd (Black nerd) community. This is a place for us . . . I let my community know this is for everyone. I’ve had people from the LGBTQ+ community reach out to me to ask, ‘Can we come here?’ Of course, that’s what I want!”

The whole idea of Nito Café is to cultivate a space where anyone can be both who they are as well as who they were meant to be, Tillman adds. 

As they crowdfund support and reach out to private investors, Nito Café does have a general timeline in place for their launch. Per their Indiegogo, they hope to have a building leased by early in the second quarter of 2022 with a grand opening by the middle of quarter three. In the meantime, people can donate money, share the crowdfunding campaign, or just generally get the word out about the cafe. Tillman knows that this place will be something special. 

“Once I have an idea that I want to do, I’m going to do it,” she says. “Which is why I know in my heart this is going to happen. It’s going to benefit so many people and just help Chicago and the community. That’s why I’m so happy about it.”

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