When Troy Johnson began tracking the number of black-owned bookstores in the U.S. in 1999, there were more than 325. By 2014, that number had dwindled to 54, a decline of 83%.
“They were closing left and right, and the major ones were struggling,” said Johnson, who runs the African American Literature Book Club, an online book database. Today, Johnson estimates, there are at least 108 black-owned independent stores, a number of which have opened in the past six months, marking a substantial reversal. “Last year was the first year I added more stores to the list than I took away,” he noted.
The surge in black-owned indie bookstores is notable at a time when both bookselling and publishing are wrestling with issues of workforce diversity.
Ramunda and Derrick Young, wife-and-husband owners of the newly opened MahoganyBooks, looked for a physical location for years, but a wave of gentrification in Washington, D.C., left them with few promising options. That changed in early 2017, when they found a location in the Anacostia Arts Center, in the historically African-American neighborhood of Anacostia in Southeast D.C. Ramunda, a former general books manager of the Howard University Bookstore, said opening a store was a logical step toward diversifying the couple’s business after having run a books website serving predominately African-American readers for a decade.
MahoganyBooks opened in February and is the first bookstore in Anacostia in 20 years. The 500-sq.-ft. store has an adjacent events space for large readings. With tablets for readers to locate books online while they browse, the store fulfills the couple’s vision of “a bookstore 2.0,” Derrick said.
“Bookstore 2.0” is shorthand for the Youngs’ effort to integrate the physical store and the long-standing digital operation, creating independent sources of revenue that stand alone but point to one another. In-store technology points to the website, and the website now points to the physical store’s events. “We thought, if there were another big crazy economic downturn, how would we prepare ourselves so that we would have multiple streams of income?” Derrick said.
Opening the bookstore is also a homecoming. Derrick’s grandmother lived in Anacostia when he was a child, and he frequented the neighborhood’s black-owned bookstores. He later worked at the black-owned Karibu booksellers with Ramunda. Speaking about himself and Ramunda, he paid tribute to those earlier stores: “We were both kind of nurtured in that way. We both made an effort to be mentored and to understand the experience that readers want when they come into a bookstore.”
When forensic anthropology professor Christina Benton opened Janco Books in Las Vegas in October 2017, readers asked if she would model her store after Native Son, a neighborhood African-American specialty bookstore that closed in 2008. Benton expanded the store’s African-American section, but she said her interest is in catering to as broad a community as possible. “It’s a general bookstore owned by an African-American person,” she said.
With a selection of new and used books, Janco caters most of all to families that homeschool in the area. “They buy the most, because they need to have the resources,” Benton said.
In Brooklyn’s rapidly gentrifying Crown Heights neighborhood, a general bookstore is as far from what Afro-Latina owner Kalima Desuze and her Caribbean husband, Ryan Cameron, wanted to open when they launched the Afro-feminist Cafe Con Libros in late December. Desuze, a retired U.S. Army JAG corps member with master’s degrees in social work and public administration, grew up in Prospect Place and credits her trajectory in life to reading feminist African and African-American authors.
“A lot of the reason why I opened up the store is because feminism has not always been the province of women of color,” Desuze said. “Part of my challenge as a black woman, calling my bookstore a feminist bookstore, is that some black women do not identify with the word feminism. But if they took the time to explore they would discover that they are already living it.”
In an interview in PW last November about her efforts to open the Lit. Bar, the only bookstore in the Bronx, Afro-Latina bookseller Nöelle Santos said that she had encountered discrimination from lenders in financing her effort, until her IndieGogo campaign raised more than $150,000. In contrast, Desuze said her Brooklyn-based backers were supportive. “I think it was a combination of a lot of things,” she noted. “I am independently financially stable. I own my own home and have advanced degrees. My portfolio alone was something that was able to catapult me.” Desuze added that without those things, and in a different location in Brooklyn, she believes that discrimination would likely have been an issue.
“I don’t know if this would be possible in Brownsville,” Desuze said of another diverse Brooklyn neighborhood that is not gentrifying, “because there’s an underlying idea that black folks don’t read and Latino folks don’t read.” She added that even without the challenges that Santos faced, “it’s quite a revolution for black folks to open up a bookstore and to provide these books that are about African-American culture. ”
Revolutionary books and a community focus are both part of Marc Lamont Hill’s approach at his newly opened Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books in Philadelphia. Hill, an author, CNN contributor, and professor of media studies and urban education at Temple University, decided to take his scholarly knowledge of the history of bookstores and put it to practical use selling books in the Germantown neighborhood of the city where he lives. His dream of owning a bookstore turned into reality after he walked past a vacant building in 2017.
“I did some hard number crunching,” said Hill, who settled on opening a café as a way to create a welcoming space that also had higher margins than a standalone bookstore. The store opened in November and it has exceeded his expectations, he added. “People are buying books at a rate we didn’t expect.”
Hill does much of the buying for the store himself. And though the store has roots in the historic black-owned bookstores he went to as a young man, Hill said there are differences between those and Uncle Bobbie’s, which has an African-American focus but is a general bookstore with leftist political leanings. Older stores “didn’t have gender theory, queer theory, environmental studies, and disability studies,” he noted. “I’m expanding what black activist literature is.”
Community events have been so successful for the store, Hill said, that he has had to bring in additional staffing. In February, he hosted an event called the Radical Martin Luther King Symposium that drew 600 people to a neighboring church.
Johnson sees differences between the older bookstores and the new wave of stores, many of which have fewer books and larger spaces devoted to coffee and tea, but Hill believes there is still a desire among readers to congregate in a physical bookstore. “Amazon has tried to match that [connection to books] with algorithms, but that’s not the same as having an elder in the community say, ‘Son, I know you want to read this, but first you have to read this and this and this and this,’ and then have them talk about the content of these books,” Hill said.
Creating a space for those connections to happen over books is “the best thing I’ve ever done professionally,” Hill said. “I’ve written books, I’ve had New York Times bestsellers, but I’ve never done anything so gratifying.”