Organized in response to the spread of the new coronavirus and the shutdown of commercial spaces, a coalition of African-American independent booksellers and publishers convened a national video conference call the evening of March 22 to survey the state of black books around the country.
The conference attracted nearly 200 callers from around the country (more than 300 registered for the call) to join a “conversation, about what’s going on with black books” in the wake of virus, said Paul Coates, publisher of Black Classic Press, one of the organizers of the event and panel moderator. Another organizer, Katura Hudson, marketing director of Just US Books, said they hoped the event would be “positive and focused on listening, providing support, and sharing ideas.” Among the area of concerns were the impact of social distancing, complicated by the digital divide (especially for the elderly) between the mainstream population and black communities, the closing of libraries, cancellation of book festivals, the impact of public health decisions on “essential or nonessential” stores, and adjusting to curbside pickups while attempting to stay in contact with readers now forced to shelter in place.
Panelist member Troy Johnson, founder of online black book site AABLC.com, cited the digital divide as a concern, as did James Fugate, co-owner of 32 year old Eso Won Bookstore in Los Angeles, who said “we get calls from the elderly that can’t come into the store now, but can’t use online technology.” He called the pandemic “the biggest challenge the store has faced ever. This may go on for a long time and we need your support. We can weather this thing and keep getting good books out.”
Store owners recognized the need for an online presence in spite of Amazon’s dominance, which was noted. There was also some criticism by various callers of the use of social media despite its popularity and pervasive use by the public in general and in particular by African Americans. But others cited the importance of bookstores and publishers using digital strategies to connect with black readers.
Ramunda Young, cofounder of MahoganyBooks in Washington DC., a 13 year-old black independent store that began as an online-only retailer, said “online sales have been our bread and butter as our first 10 years were online before opening our physical store. As a black bookselling community, we must learn to embrace the online portions of our businesses better." Young reminded the audience that “90% of African Americans have a smartphone with internet access, and 54% of those are digital natives, or young people who have always had online access.” She added: “We must take advantage of social media as the numbers are powerfully for us.”
Shirikiana Gerima, cofounder of Sankofa Video, Books, Café in Washington D.C., said her store remains open because it also has a café (tables had to be removed) for takeout and customers can buy books but can’t stay in the store. Sankofa is situated across the street from Howard University, closed because of the pandemic, and depends on the patronage of student customers now sent home. Gerima said she hopes to work with Howard professors to put lectures on the store’s YouTube channel. “We’re looking to find new ways to operate,” she said, including “moving more book sales online.” But the store is also facing a separate and ongoing threat, Gerima said, “gentrification,” which, in her case, is rapidly escalating property taxes that she said were higher than her monthly mortgage
Kassahun Checole, president of Africa World Press/Red Sea Press, a publisher and distributor of books on Africa and the African diaspora, said that most of his staff has been sent home. “We’re filling a few orders a week but our expansion into South Africa has come to a total stop. Right now the virus has put us out of business but we’ll keep at it. We need to do more business online,” he said.
The conference call included another international presence: Kadija George, a U.K.-based writer, journalist, and editor, and now a doctoral student studying British black publishing and bookselling, spoke about her research into British bookselling and about the 50th anniversary of black bookstores in England. Also speaking on the call was poet, author, and radio host, E. Ethelbert Miller, a Howard University and Washington D.C. literary icon, as well as a number of independent black booksellers from around the country among them Donya Craddock, owner of the 12 year old Dock Bookshop in Dallas-Fort Worth, and Janet Jones, founder of 12 year old Source Booksellers in Detroit.
In a rousing comment on the call Miller took note of power of social media, citing the masses of black people on Twitter and other platforms looking for books. But he also took note of the absence of in-store contact, in effect the loss of a competitive advantage for indie stores. “When you can’t hug the author; intimacy is important.” Checole called social distancing “a new challenge. We’ve lost the person to person bond because of the virus. So we have to expand and find new ways to connect and grow.”
Coates closed out the call by noting it was the first in a series of “conversations” intended to identity good ideas and strategies to support independent black books. “I’m not asking for suggestions about what I can do. We’ve got some very creative people here and we want to know what you’re doing. This is a conversation that all of you can join,” he said. And despite the challenges, Coates added, “no one says they’re closing, they’re all fighting back.”
Clarification: MahoganyBooks co-owner Ramunda Young's comment has been clarified and expanded.