At first glance, there might not seem much cause for celebrating the future of African-American bookstores during Black History Month. The country’s oldest African-American bookstore, Marcus Books in San Francisco (open for 44 years), is in rough financial straits. The Shrine of the Black Madonna liquidated its Detroit store earlier this month, according to the Detroit Free Press, and its Houston store is closed for “restructuring.”
The number of black bookstores has declined precipitously since 2002, when the American Booksellers Association counted 300 members. Today there are fewer than 100, according to Troy Johnson, president of the African American Literary Book Club (AALBC.com), who maintains a list by state. But with the opening of Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti, Mich., in November, the projected opening of Ancestry Books in Minneapolis in June, and MahoganyBooks.com looking to open a physical bookstore by 2016, it’s possible that things are changing.
The problem is “the ecosystem,” Johnson said, adding, “In addition to losing bookstores, we’re losing platforms [to promote books].” He cited as an example the closure of publications like Black Issues magazine. African-American books in general are receiving less exposure since the demise of Borders, which had a strong African-American section. And the Web is not a great help to discoverability: online search engines can bring up personal problems, such as tax issues for well-known black writers like Zane, rather than information about books.
Areas like metro Washington, D.C./Baltimore have lost major bookstores in recent years, most notably the 2008 closing of Karibu Books, the country’s largest black bookstore chain. Last fall another area chain, the Literary Joint Book Lounge, which specializes in urban fiction, history, conspiracy, and self-published books, shrank from five stores to a single 2,000-sq.-ft. “lounge” in Suitville, Md. Founder LaQuita Adams, who got her start in the book business publishing fiction through Five Star Publishing, said that she purposely kept “bookstore” out of TLJ’s name. “ ‘Bookstore’ is very traditional,” she said. “Readers aren’t interested in coming to a bookstore. It’s boring.” To enliven TLJ, she does lots of events, including a combined grand opening and book release party in November for K’Wan’s Animal 2: The Omen (Cash Money).
During the recession, real estate became a key concern and it continues to be a stumbling block. Marcus Books is in the midst of a $1 million fundraising campaign to “Keep It Lit” on gofundme.com to supplement the $1.7 million it has already raised to buy back its Bop City building, a historic landmark in San Francisco. If enough donations don’t come in by the end of February, the store could move—or close. Co-owner Karen Johnson, who compares being a bookseller to being a sharecropper—“you don’t make enough on the sale of one book for another book”—told PW, “I expect it to work out.”
Kevin Roberts, cofounder and co-owner of seven-year-old Azizi Books in Matteson, Ill., is unsure about his store’s fate. He launched BlackBooksDirect.com before opening the bookstore with his daughter, Maia, one month after both received their M.B.A.s. When Borders closed, the store added many mainstream titles and boasts the largest selection of African-American children’s books in Chicagoland. Although sales rose 20% from 2011 to 2012 when Azizi tripled in size to 4,500 sq. ft., its fate rests with the mall itself, which emerged from bankruptcy in June 2012. Last summer the Village of Matteson sued and threatened to close the building. “A receiver was appointed by the court,” explained Roberts, “and the property is now in limbo once again. “We are taking a patient approach to understanding what would work best for us. It’s a place where people of all kinds can come together. We want to be in a community which values that,” said Roberts.
Yusef Harris owns the building that houses his 1,000-sq.-ft. bookstore, Alkebu-Lan Images in Nashville, across the street from Tennessee State University and near several black colleges. “I’m a psychologist by training. This is my practice,” he said. “People come in with issues. In psychology, you’re trying to help and create change; you can do that, too, through reading and literacy.” He makes adult titles like Na’im Akbar’s Breaking the Chains of Psychological Slavery and Baruti Kafele’s Motivating Black Males to Achieve in School and Life available. And he stocks a broad selection of African-American children’s books, which he notes, “you’re not going to find at majority-owned bookstores. We’re here to fill the void and to empower.”
Like other booksellers, Harris admitted “we can’t make it as a bookstore.” Books comprise about 60% of sales, with the other 40% coming from greeting cards, novelty items, jewelry, and gifts that reflect African culture and heritage. Harris’s bookselling reach extends well beyond Nashville. After a second store in Louisville, Ky., closed, he began holding an annual book fair there as well as in other smaller markets. He also handles book sales at conferences around the country.
For Akbar James Watson, owner of 21-year-old Pyramid Books in Boynton Beach, Fla., the book business is “a hustle. The African-American community doesn’t read as much. Now they read less.” In addition to a large selection of historical and religious books as well as children’s titles, he stocks a broad array of sidelines, including African and Egyptian figurines, incense, Kindles, and Kobos. Recently he has begun doing more book fairs at schools and talks at both schools and libraries. Watson also relies on government orders and out-of-print book sales on Amazon. He credits Tavis Smiley with helping him book more events with celebrity authors by reporting sales to the New York Times.
Hustling is no problem for Carlos Franklin, co-owner of Black Stone Bookstore, who began by selling books from the trunk of his car at beauty salons and nail centers and also works fulltime as a real estate agent. His store carries a broad selection, ranging from urban fiction to Iceberg Slim, and will host poetry slams, storytimes, and author events.
So far Franklin has resisted customer requests to buy their books and resell them as used inventory. “Girls are getting $500 hairdos; boys are putting $2,000 rims on their cars. They can afford to buy a book,” he said. In addition to selling books and sidelines like DVDs, Franklin plans to dedicate a portion of the store’s space to creating a community center, or “think tank,” where students can hang out, do homework, and read.
Chaun Webster, who founded Free Poet’s Press in 2009, has been thinking about opening a bookstore/community center for several years. Initially he and his wife, Verna, planned to extend their front porch and open a store in their house. But they put the plan on hold and are instead starting Ancestry Books in June, when students at a nearby elementary school get out for summer, with a 300-sq.-ft. space in North Minneapolis.
The store is in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign that has surpassed Webster’s goal of $10,000, which will help him stock both children’s and adult literature by indigenous authors and authors of color. “I want literature that is representative, that offers possibilities,” said Webster, who has been heartened to see stores like New York City’s La Casa Azul, which serves the Latino community, spring up. “Right now,” he said, “we need booksellers that don’t think like booksellers. I’m an artist. I think of the bookstore as a gallery.”
Derrick Young and his wife, Ramunda, began their bookselling careers at Karibu and launched MahoganyBooks.com (named for their daughter) in 2007. Although their bookstore is online, they believe that “there’s nothing like connecting actual authors with readers. Anybody can sell a book,” he said. “It’s creating the communication, having a connection.” To make that connection, they have begun partnering with libraries and nonprofits in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. But they would also like to have a physical bookstore and have begun to look more actively for a space. “People still like to go out and touch and feel books,” Derrick said. “We’re very aware of the fact that e-books are here,” added Ramunda. “One of the stores I look at is Politics and Prose. That is my prototype.”
It’s too soon to know whether three new stores and a grassroots movement to Keep Marcus Books Lit are enough to stem the closing of African-American bookstores. But if the modest growth of the ABA over the past few years is any indication, there’s a possibility that black bookstores could make a comeback.