At a time when the number of bookstores is shrinking and regional chains have all but disappeared, Carl Weber is opening more African-American bookstores as part of his four-year-old Urban Knowledge brand. And in May he launched Beach Reads, the first of what he plans to turn into a chain of general bookstores with strong African-American sections, with a second store set to open in August. His seventh Urban Knowledge outlet will open on July 4.
“In the African-American market, we're like the last man standing,” said Weber, whose goal is to have 10 to 13 bookstores by the end of 2009. That may seem ambitious in today's economy, but Weber has always thought big. Starting in 2000, he launched Kensington's Dafina Books imprint with his first novel, Lookin' for Luv. Since then he has written a steady stream of bestselling street-smart romantic novels, including his most recent hardcover, Up to No Good, released by Dafina in February and hitting the New York Times extended list. In 2002, he founded his own publishing house, Urban Books, which releases between six and eight novels a month. In addition, Weber oversees an active mail-order operation, which sends out 100,000 catalogues a year.
For Weber, bookselling, writing and publishing are a good fit. “The bookstores give us an idea of what is popular, so we can publish the right kind of book,” said Weber. He began opening bookstores in 1993 and was named Blackboard Bookseller of the Year in 2000. Three years later, he sold the stores he owned—Black Facts I in Brooklyn, N.Y.; Black Facts II in Queens, N.Y.; Horizon Books in Newark, N.J.— to concentrate on publishing and was named Blackboard Publisher of the Year in 2005.
Within a couple of years Weber was back. He began opening African-American bookstores under the Urban Knowledge name in cities like Baltimore, Memphis and Newark. Initially, he tried a different ownership model and franchised the stores à la Little Professor. “It became hard to control things,” Weber said. “Everybody has an idea about how to run a bookstore.” He also found that his franchise partners lacked the capital to reinvest in the stores. He kept the mom-and-pop look with the Urban Knowledge stores, but now there's a corporation behind them, owned entirely by Weber and his wife.
Weber said Urban Knowledge offers an African-American version of Waldenbooks; Beach Reads, he said, is comparable to Hudson News in New York City. Most stores are located in malls and are relatively small, between 1,000 and 1,500 sq. ft. Many of the locations are on the site of former Walden stores, while two Maryland stores were originally part of the now defunct Karibu Books chain. Weber's Urban Books business, of which Urban Knowledge is a part, is headquartered on Long Island, with additional stores in Virginia.
Although Weber launched Beach Reads in Bridgehampton, N.Y., so that he could visit it often and adjust the model, his second one will be in Towson, Md. He is planning to convert several Urban Knowledge stores to Beach Reads if there is less general bookstore competition nearby, but keep stores operating under the Urban Knowledge name if there is a strong African-American population or if there is a large chain store in the area. A Web site to support the bookstores is being worked on, as his UrbanBooks.net site is currently geared just to the publishing program.
Weber said the expansion is part of his plan to position the bookstores for the country's economic turnaround. “I'm definitely optimistic,” he says. “This is what I do, what I love. People aren't going to stop reading. There's always a niche, if you look for it.”