Signing and Singing
Diane Patrick -- 9/4/00
Bookseller-turned-author uses retail background and imagination to sing her way to success
Several years ago, Manie Barron, then an associate editor at Random House, read an article in the New York Times about African-Americans examining the role of slavery in their pasts. The article, mentioning the Black Holocaust Exhibit in Atlanta, and its curator, Velma Maia Thomas, reminded Barron that she was one of his accounts when he was a sales rep. She was the manager of the Shrine of the Black Madonna Bookstore and Cultural Center in Atlanta.
Reading the exhibit brochure Thomas sent him, Barron was moved by the reproductions of papers documenting the purchase of slaves. "If it's having this effect on me, what effect would it have on people who are denying the existence of slavery?" he wondered.
Barron signed Thomas to write three titles on the topic; the first, Lest We Forget: The Passage from Africa to Slavery and Emancipation: A Three-Dimensional Interactive Book with Photographs and Documents from the Black Holocaust Exhibit, was released in 1997--the first book for both author and editor. The interactive title contained pop-ups, pull-outs, lift-a-flaps, photographs, illustrations and three-dimensional images of such objects as a slave cargo ship, maps, insurance papers, replicated receipts for the sale of a slave woman, advertisements for the return of runaway slaves and a former slave's freedom papers. The book sold more than 70,000 copies--mostly by word of mouth and sterling reviews.
Soon after the publication of Lest We Forget, an article in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution sent customers flocking to Thomas's bookstore.
The three Shrine of the Black Madonna bookstores --in Detroit, Atlanta and Houston--are connected to the church of the same name founded in Detroit by Rev. Albert Cleage, father of author Pearl Cleage. The bookstores are part of a complex comprising the church, housing facilities, a learning center, a youth center and a nursery program. In 1986, Thomas was asked to manage the Atlanta store after the previous manager transferred to the Houston store.
Thomas's 13-year tenure there was "during a time when major media and major booksellers were not paying attention to black authors," she told PW. "The store was run by black women who were up against the publishers and mainstream bookstores, and we still made our mark. And we had fun."
This month, Crown is publishing Freedom's Children: The Passage from Emancipation into the Twentieth Century, Thomas's second book in the historical trilogy. In the same interactive fashion as Lest We Forget, the book follows the struggles of the newly freed slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation. The new volume contains a grant giving 20 acres to a former slave, a confidential message from a WWI general detailing the lower status to be accorded black soldiers and pages from The Freedman's Third Reader, a school textbook created to teach former slaves how to read.
'Oh, No, Not Kumbaya!'
Although she had previously attended BEA conventions as a bookseller, Thomas first appeared there as an author at this year's convention. As part of her presentation, she sang Kumbaya. "That was the first time I've ever liked that song," Barron admitted. "Most people's reaction is, 'Oh, no, not Kumbaya!' but when people hear her sing it, it's like they're hearing it for the first time."
"I always like to open with Kumbaya:'come by here,'" Thomas explained, because "as the slaves tried to make a way in this new world, they asked for help from above." Among the songs she sings is Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, and she likes to close with Oh, Freedom. "People are moved to tears," she said. "Some people may not have realized these songs are about a struggle for freedom. The only way we have survived is the knowledge that there was a power looking out for us."
One bookseller touched by Thomas's presentation was Bobbie Fowlkes-Davis, the manager of the Underground Railroad Reading Station in Detroit. Her store is not a conventional bookstore, she explains, but more a Christian specialty bookstore. Her nickname for it is "Detroit's African-American History Stop." The store is in the Second Baptist Church of Detroit, historically significant for two reasons: it was Michigan's first black congregation, established in 1836, and during slavery, it was the last Underground Railroad "station" where slaves were sheltered and concealed before fleeing to the freedom of Canada. The bookstore/gift shop stocks adult and children's titles on the antebellum period, the Underground Railroad, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the civil rights era, as well as Christian materials.
Eager to learn about bookselling, Fowlkes-Davis attended her very first BEA convention last June and was among those in tears after witnessing Thomas's presentation.
When the two met afterward, they discovered they were both Detroit natives. Thomas later visited Detroit, her trip coinciding with the grand opening of the bookstore on August 5. Her presentation there was a complete success.
Both Sides of the CounterIn the early years, to arrange author appearances at her own store, Thomas and her staff of three often had to "sell [publishers] on the idea that black people do buy books. We had to call publishers and convince them that yes, we can pull 700 people."
After 1990, following the Terry McMillan-induced boom in African-American interest titles, "we began to see the pendulum swing the other way because we had to compete with white bookstores for authors."
As an author, Thomas says she has learned to relax and trust the bookstore managers when she g s to signings. "Once I walked into a bookstore and responded as authors do: 'Do you have enough books?' Yet as a manager, I cringe when an author asks me that!" Thomas also dislikes being on a tight schedule--because her priority is to sign a book for everyone who asks. "These are the people who are supporting us and making sure our books stay out there. You can never be too busy for them." But the most important thing, she noted, is to "keep a sense of humor and always enjoy."
After the success of Lest We Forget, Thomas left the bookselling business to spend more time writing and fulfilling requests to speak. She now teaches African-American history part-time at Georgia State University.
Volume 246 Issue 36 09/04/2000