Last month, when Tattered Cover Books was sold and anointed the “largest Black-owned bookstore in the country,” it was clear that we have a long way to go in terms of understanding what it truly means to be a Black bookstore in America.
Let’s get semantics out of the way. If you are Black and you own a bookstore then, technically, that store is a Black-owned bookstore. However, there is a difference between a bookstore that happens to be owned by a Black person and a Black bookstore. One speaks to the names on ownership papers; the other speaks to the very essence of a business, from its mission statement to the community that it represents. You can have macaroni noodles and cheese in your dish, but there’s a difference between that box of Kraft and your favorite aunt’s mac and cheese.
Black bookstores exist, first and foremost, to serve people who have long been marginalized and devalued. We who own and operate Black bookstores don’t have the luxury of being solely profit-driven. Community needs dictate many of our decisions. We do this work while typically assuming greater risks than white-owned bookstores and facing unique challenges. That makes the daunting task of building a successful business more difficult. When the long-term effects of white supremacy and racial inequality are factored in, our mere presence is a radical act and our survival is vital.
Every inch of Uncle Bobbie’s, including our namesake, is rooted in our commitment to the Black community. When Marc Lamont Hill opened the store, he dedicated it to his actual uncle Bobbie, who introduced him to reading and identity. Marc chose to open the store in the Germantown section of Philadelphia—a Black and low-income community. If he’d hired a business consultant to give him a list of optimal locations, it would not have been on the list. But foot traffic and disposable income were not priorities. Providing access to diverse books and quality coffee to a community lacking investment was.
Our books are chosen to represent not just Black people but other underrepresented groups as well. As a father, I take pride in watching parents pick out books for their children and knowing that those children will be able to see themselves in their pages.
The impact of our book selection also extends to the authors who’ve dedicated their lives to putting pen to page. Black authors are woefully ignored in the mainstream book industry. Oftentimes the only opportunity for promotion outside of their own platforms is when Black bookstores feature their books. I’ve lost count of how many authors have sent us private messages thanking us for showcasing their books on our social media pages or hosting them at our author events.
Despite having unforgiving margins, Black bookstores must remain accessible, and we use our limited resources to support those who are vulnerable. Pre-Covid, we provided free events throughout the year, including a weekly children’s storytime, back-to-school drives, and our annual Malcolm X symposium that tackles issues critical to the community. We never charged for any of our author events, because we wanted to make sure that people had opportunities to meet these incredible authors, even if they were not able to afford their books.
Ultimately, what makes a Black bookstore special is the way Black people feel valued in the space. Black people can walk into Uncle Bobbie’s and feel comfortable, shedding the fear that they will immediately be profiled for criminality. A Black woman can feel comfortable knowing that the only question she’ll be asked about her hair is which products she uses. It’s impossible to overstate how uncomfortable it is to be Black in white spaces, so when Black people find somewhere that truly sees them, that place becomes a refuge. In 2018, when two Black men were arrested for “loitering” in a Philly Starbucks—an activity that white people get to enjoy with impunity—we had one of our biggest days, because the community wanted to make a statement that we are a safe space for Black people.
From the shelves to the employees to the Black vendors that supply our sideline items, the Blackness of our bookstore isn’t just a buzzword—it’s woven in the fabric of our DNA. And it’s not just us: stores like the Lit. Bar, Semicolon, Harriett’s, and Mahogany are all on the front lines living and breathing the Black experience with their blood, sweat, and tears. So the media coverage around the Tattered purchase was an insult. They don’t get to skip the work required to stand among us. Our stores have nothing in common with theirs, and we will not allow anyone else to define what a Black bookstore is—because like with mac and cheese, one is good for your soul, while the other gets you booted from the family barbecue.
Justin Moore is the manager of Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Philadelphia.