When Modern Times Bookstore Collective in San Francisco sent out an e-mail in the middle of March about losing its lease and needing a temporary location until it could move in with Busboys & Poets, the restaurant/gathering place, that was the first word that many people had about Busboys’s intention to go West.
Founder Anas “Andy” Shallal, however, is not leaving Washington, D.C., where he opened the first Busboys restaurant/café/bar with a bookstore managed by Teaching for Change six years ago. Since then Shallal has added two more area Busboys: one in Shirlington Village in the Urban Village section of Arlington County, Va.; the other in downtown Washington. Both have a Global Exchange fair-trade marketplace and plenty of space for literary and activist events. A fourth Busboys, slated to open in June in Hyattsville, Md., will partner with a crafts collective.
While many bookstores have added cafés to bolster their business, Shallal uses literature as an activist counterpart to his restaurants. In 2009 he opened Eatonville restaurant, which takes its name from Zora Neale Hurston’s hometown—the town in Their Eyes Were Watching God—across from the original Busboys. Once a month he brings in an author or folklorist to talk about food. “We try to create conversation around food,” says Shallal, who invites writers like Jessica Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America, and creates special menus geared to the presentation.
“I’m not really a restaurateur,” says Shallal, who opened his first restaurant in 1987. “I’m an activist with food. We all eat. There’s a commonality.” He uses the restaurants to support progressive causes and collectives like Modern Times, which Shallal contacted seven months ago when he first learned about their financial difficulties. “I don’t think the bookstore could survive without the restaurant,” he says. But he regards the presence of a bookstore as “a win/win” and is actively looking for a space to accommodate both Busboys and Modern Times. He expects to open a San Francisco Busboys within the next two years.
In the meantime, Shallal is moving forward with plans to open a Busboys next year in Denver’s Rossonian Hotel, once a jazz mecca. He says that he would like to work with a local bookstore. Failing that, he will ask Teaching for Change, provided they can get funding for another store. A long-rumored Busboys in Harlem is something that he confirmed is still in the works. But he has yet to find a viable space.
With all the openings, Iraqi-American artist Shallal, says only half jokingly that he has no time for his painting. Still he continues to make time for the publishing venture he launched two years ago with the publication of Washington poet Ethelbert Miller’s memoir, The Fifth Inning. Busboys and Poets Press, an imprint of PM Press, will publish two works of poetry in April: the debut collection by its poet in residence, Derrick Weston Brown, Wisdom Teeth; the other a collection of poetry by Akbar Ahmed, the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University,Suspended Somewhere Between.