Over the past five years, the American Booksellers Association has witnessed a resurgence in independent bookselling, yet the number of bookstores owned by African-Americans has continued to decline. Between 2002 and 2012, two-thirds of black-owned bookstores closed, according to statistics compiled by Troy Johnson, founder of the African-American Literature Book Club (AALBC). Of the roughly 400 stores that remained, more than half closed in 2013 and 2014. The closings continued in 2015, leaving only 67 black-owned bookstores at the end of January 2016.
Despite tough times, booksellers and other entrepreneurs aren’t giving up. Johnson points to some promising signs—new store openings and reopenings, and at least one store that’s changing hands—suggesting that the number of black-owned bookstore closings could have topped out. But, he cautions, “it may not be at a point where you can jump up and down for joy; so many communities don’t have bookstores.” One indication of the uncertain future of black-owned bookstores is the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore in Detroit, which held a liquidation sale in late 2014 to make space for events and was mistakenly reported to be closed. The bookstore is open with curtailed hours, two days a week.
Three-month-old Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Philadelphia is among a handful of black-owned bookstores that have sprung up. At 33, Ariell Johnson is a member of a younger generation of owners, and she is also the first African-American woman to own a comics shop on the East Coast.
“Amalgam has been kicking around my head since college,” Johnson said. She first came up with the idea after her favorite coffee shop closed. When her mother passed away at 57, Johnson decided that life was too short and she should go ahead and do it. Currently, Amalgam stocks comics and graphic novels for adults and children. Johnson is looking to add some geek culture–related science fiction titles, and she has already begun creating events such as a Dungeons & Dragons evening in advance of adding a gaming room.
It was a personal connection that also led Pamela Blair to create EyeSeeMe Educational Bookstore in University City, Mo. When she homeschooled her four children, she had trouble finding books for them that featured black children. In response, she wrote three of her own books—The Story of Jacob, The Story of Abraham, and The Story of Creation. Because of the response from friends and neighbors, she launched EyeSeeMe.com in 2011 to sell her work. Last June, she expanded the concept with a bricks-and-mortar children’s bookstore that carries her books and those of other writers on African-American culture and history.
Like Johnson, Blair continues to add new programs. “We’re constantly growing the store to help the community to see themselves,” Blair said. For her, that translates into online and in-school book fairs with diverse books, as well as a year-round “book-angel” program that donates children’s books with positive images of African-American children and families to schools and nonprofit centers. The store also has a physical classroom, which she plans to use for events, such as having black medical students talk with middle graders about STEM subjects.
Although Chaun Webster closed Ancestry Books in North Minneapolis last fall, the store reopened earlier this month as a recurring weekend pop-up outlet at Juxtaposition Arts, a local arts organization. “We still are here,” Webster said. “We’re not intending to go anywhere.” Although he hasn’t had much success selling through the store’s website, some former customers have placed phone and e-mail orders. He is excited for the store to once again have a physical presence. “It has always been about the creation of space,” he said. “People that come and return to Ancestry Books have done so out of the sort of space we provide, both social and material.”
Wild Fig in Lexington, Ky., began as a used book store four years ago in the same space that had once housed Morgan Adams Books. Owners Ron Davis and writer Crystal Wilkinson, whose debut novel, The Birds of Opulence (Univ. of Kentucky), will be published in March, closed Wild Fig in February 2015 after a second Half Price Books opened nearby. A few weeks later their landlord approached them about leasing space in an up-and-coming neighborhood.
Wilkinson and Davis reopened the store last fall as Wild Fig Books & Coffee in Lexington’s North Limestone district, with a different business model that includes a coffee bar, new books, and fewer titles overall. Now their inventory caters to Southern literary customers and young mothers looking for high-quality children’s books and graphic novels such as the Lumberjanes series. Davis said the store did well through Christmas and he is seeing how the new shopping patterns will develop in 2016.
Two of the country’s oldest African-American bookstores are hoping for a comeback. Karen Johnson, who co-owns Marcus Books in San Francisco with her husband, Greg, has been scouting for new locations since the store was evicted in May 2014. In the meantime, she is working with her sister, Blanche Richardson, at the Marcus Books in Oakland, which her family owns.
Since the San Francisco store closed, the Oakland one has also had some problems. “We’ve suffered because of the rumors out there that Marcus Books has closed,” said Richardson, who noted that the Oakland outlet did well last year with big events, such as with actor Danny Glover. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me was a strong seller last year, and the store’s children’s section did well. Within the next couple months, she plans to launch an online store. The site will feature new books and a selection of the store’s archive of collectible titles, with synopses written by Richardson.
Hakim’s Bookstore & Gift Shop in Philadelphia, which once had three locations, has had financial difficulties in the years following the death of founder Dawud Hakim in 1997. His daughter Yvonne Blake, who has been dipping into her retirement fund to keep the store afloat, would have closed Hakim’s last year had it not been for an article in the Philadelphia Daily News headlined “Let’s Save the City’s Landmark African-American Bookstore.” “It’s still a little touch and go,” Blake said. “On the upside, people are shopping.” Plus she has begun receiving donations from around the country with notes urging her to “stay strong.” Blake has also gotten offers from people who would like to volunteer, and she is considering other options to make the store more financially secure, including adding a partner. Although money has been tight, Blake recently expanded the children’s section.
Gentrification is an additional challenge faced by some stores, including 18-year-old Sankofa Video Books & Café in Washington, D.C.—a city once served by six other black-owned bookstores. “The environment helps us and hurts us,” said co-owner and filmmaker Shirikiana Gerima. “Gentrification in D.C. is a like a wildfire. People are looking for an oasis in the midst of a big white snow storm.”
Gerima’s other challenge is one many other small booksellers face: finding space in the 1,500-sq.-ft. bookstore for all the titles she would like to carry, particularly children’s books. One of the store’s big events is a three-day in-store Magical Mirrors book fair for which she brings in more children’s inventory, including a number of self-published titles. The store also has a regular series of author events and film screenings.
Though a number of black-owned bookstores have expanded their children’s sections in recent years, at Source Booksellers in Detroit, owner Janet Webster Jones, who opened her bookstore in 2000 after a 41-year career in the Detroit public schools, stocks only nonfiction, primarily for adults. “I want the adult reader to be a reader so much that they’ll teach their children to read,” she explained. Because her store is only 900 sq. ft., she has chosen to specialize in four areas: history and culture, health and well-being, metaphysics and spirituality, and books by and about women. She plans to add more titles by self-published authors and to put in a free library at a dog park across the street to motivate more readers. Jones said she had a “good year, nothing exceptional” in 2015.
Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, which is almost 30 years old, had what co-owner James Fugate described as the best year in a long time in 2015. “When you have a constant seller, it makes a difference,” he said, referring to the Coates book. “We also had more book signings and a lot of special orders.” Fugate also attributed higher sales to the fact that the store has been in the same location for the past nine years. Ironically, he had originally planned to move Eso Won across the street but instead he’s about to renew the lease for the store’s current location.
Although the future of black-owned bookstores remains precarious, the need for them to grow and thrive is clear. “People want to have a place to go to celebrate and investigate black heritage,” Sankofa’s Gerima said. “They are places for people to be restored and rejuvenated.”