From Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, Black booksellers have been at the forefront of a resurgence of independent bookselling in America over the last decade. But the framing of the announcement about the purchase of Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore was met with withering criticism from Black booksellers. Specifically, Black booksellers are offended and angered by the decision of the new owners to call the Tattered Cover the country’s largest Black-owned bookstore, which they say appears to be little more than a branding opportunity.
As reported earlier in PW, investors Kwame Spearman, who is Black, and David Back, who is white, are leading a 13-member investment group’s purchase of the Denver business, which has four locations in Colorado with a fifth one scheduled to open next year. In characterizing the purchase, Spearman and Oren Teicher, the retired ABA CEO who is an investor in the store, say that Spearman's stake in the company makes it the largest Black-owned bookstore in America, which led to headlines nationwide. But while both Spearman and Back bring heavy-hitting credentials to the process, the only bookselling experience either one has is, as Back informed PW in an interview, his job working the cash register at Tattered Cover when he was 15; in addition, the majority of the ownership group’s members are white, and many, including Spearman and Back, come from the overwhelmingly white world of venture capital.
For many Black booksellers, this is but the final straw this year when it comes to Tattered Cover. Earlier this year, the store made headlines for its neutrality statement in response to the killing of George Floyd, which was widely criticized—especially in the bookselling world. And the news caps a year in which Black booksellers in historically Black-owned businesses have worked tirelessly to provide anti-racist titles to new white audiences at the expense of being forced to suppress personal trauma that stems, in part, from working in an industry that has left unaddressed problems with systemic racism.
"I'm extremely offended. It's a slap in the face to the work Black booksellers have been doing all this time, when we couldn't get capital from banks to buy out existing businesses,” said Danielle Mullen, owner of Semicolon Bookstore in Chicago. “It's hurtful to Black booksellers who have been doing the hard work—and then they take the same credit without real Black representation. It's disappointing and almost unbelievable. Especially with the history they have around the BLM protests and why they lost so many customers. It's ridiculous." She added: “It's like if Jeff Bezos partnered with a Black person and then said, 'Amazon is the biggest Black-owned business in the world."
Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Bookstores in Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring, Md., singled out the absence of a commitment to real change in the investment group’s announcement. “If this is going to be a genuinely Black-owned bookstore, meaning a stem to stern, top to bottom adjustment of core values and business practices to not just be Black-friendly, but infused with Black culture—our ethics, morals—I would be jazzed out of my mind,” she said.
“I don’t see that from these press releases,” she added. “I see branding. I see zero discussion of the horrific statements that came out of Tattered Cover over the past year. I don’t see, ‘I don’t want that to be the voice of Denver, so I, as a Black man stood up and found some investors and we did this together.’ ”
At Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Philadelphia, manager Justin Moore said he was reluctant to blame the new owners, but was deeply concerned about the messaging and subsequent media coverage of the purchase. “Being a Black-owned bookstore is more than just whose name is on the ownership papers,” Moore said. “Just a simple transfer of ownership doesn't automatically qualify you to be a Black-owned bookstore in the same way that almost every Black-owned bookstore in the country operates.”
The outcome of rebranding without signaling a deeper commitment to substantive change, Moore said, is that customers could be misled, with harmful results: “Being a Black-owned bookstore is about the community that you serve, it is about your mission statement, it is about the books on your shelf, and it is about the way, frankly, that Black people feel about your business—about the way Black people feel safe. They feel valued when they walk through your doors. And you're talking about a bookstore with a very problematic history in terms of dealing with issues and concerns of the Black community.”
For Noëlle Santos, owner of the Lit. Bar in the Bronx, the announcement looked like appropriation of the idea of a Black-owned bookstore without any recognition of the deliberate work required to be one. “I was taken aback because I was hurt,” Santos said. “There are so many Black-owned bookstores that are doing the work with minimal resources.”
With industry veterans like Teicher and former Macmillan CEO John Sargent—both of whom are white—as part of the ownership group, Santos is concerned that the Tattered Cover purchase is one of many worrisome signs that the publishing industry is looking for easy ways to signal a commitment to anti-racism while actually continuing to put white people first. As another example of such performative allyship, Santos pointed to Penguin Random House’s rollout of a new edition of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which has been republished in an edition with a stamp showing it was a book club pick by Jenna Hager Bush, the daughter of former President George W. Bush. "It was done without regard for the symbolism of stamping the book," she said.
The impact of those kinds of decisions is greater than publishers are willing to recognize, Santos added. "People won't buy the book because of the stamp," she said. "It's just an accumulation of things. I have to sell that? I have to explain to my people? This is bigger than Tattered Cover.”
At Source Booksellers in Detroit, owner Janet Webster Jones said she was not upset to see the change in ownership, but that time will tell whether Spearman and Back can do the hard work to succeed—the kind of work that has led to the success of Black-owned bookstores elsewhere. Jones suggests that Tattered Cover’s bottom line will depend on a deep commitment to becoming a Black-owned store in ways that go beyond branding.
“[Tattered Cover's new owners] can say anything they like,” Jones said. “But they're going to have to prove themselves in the marketplace—prove themselves as booksellers.”
Spearman reached out to PW this morning, explaining that the framing of the sale "was not meant to be disrespectful to Black booksellers—in fact, just the opposite; their successes led to this opportunity and I give them credit for their successes.” He continued: “We were being literal, as I am the largest shareholder in the store. Tattered Cover now being the largest Black-owned bookstore in the U.S. is a factual representation. It was not intended to dismiss the incredible accomplishments of Black booksellers. We intend to move forward with a mindset fueled by Black Lives Matter."
Spearman said that he intends to reach out to Black booksellers "as soon as possible" and to work with them on matters of common concern, adding: "As a Black male, my experience is entwined with the Black experience.”
This story has been updated with further information.