In every part of our nation, bookstores have faced big changes in 2020 and 2021. Black booksellers have had to bear the brunt of those changes, from temporary closings to an explosion of orders of titles about race in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. They’ve also seen an influx of white customers seeking to become allies in the fight for social justice.
Founded in 1959 in West Philadelphia, Hakim’s Bookstore & Gift Shop is one of the oldest continually operated Black bookstores in the country and the oldest African American–owned bookstore on the East Coast. Its founder, Dawud Hakim, died in 1997 at the age of 65; his daughter, Yvonne Blake, is now the owner. The age and history of the venue make it more of a cultural center than a bookstore, even as its neighborhood gentrifies. When the pandemic hit, Hakim’s faced a huge loss.
“We were closed from March 16 until the middle or the end of June,” Blake says. “We had to stop our book signings. We were having after-hours meetings—political meetings. When we were allowed to reopen, we could only accommodate three or four customers at a time. After the murder of George Floyd, the web business just took off. We got orders every day, for all kinds of books, especially the race-conscious books: Stamped from the Beginning, So You Want to Talk About Race, How We Fight White Supremacy, Resist, and White Fragility. That opened us up to a whole lot of people we didn’t know before.”
But as Hakim’s online business boomed, there was a stark realization that a tragedy of immense proportions was driving it. “I have ambivalent feelings about it,” Blake says. “I don’t know why it took the murder of a man on TV to get people to wake up and realize what African Americans have been complaining about forever. Some of the books have been here for years—my father sold some of them in 1959—and now they’re interested?”
Unlike Hakim’s, MeJah Books in Claymont, Del., just north of Wilmington, has been able to operate during the pandemic. “I wasn’t closed; I shortened my hours,” says owner Emlyn DeGannes. “Even though the hours were shortened, this bookstore has always served as a place of communication. During the pandemic, we would meet outside the bookstore and talk.”
MeJah, which has been open for 19 years, also found itself balancing the needs of its core readership with the needs of those outside it. “I had white readers calling and asking for certain books and suggestions, and also stating that they wanted to do business with a Black bookstore,” DeGannes recalls. For her, serving white readers was more about opportunity than anything else.
“I am proud of the literature I’m representing,” DeGannes says. “And as much as I say to others that I am a Black bookstore owner, I also have a bookstore that carries all genres of books from across the globe. I represent books from the African diaspora. There was a young white man who came from New Jersey and purchased 70 copies of So You Want Talk About Race. I don’t know who he thought he was going to meet, or if he thought he was not going to be accepted. But before he left, he said, ‘I’m so happy that I came to visit with you.’ I think he was expecting some resistance, or he wasn’t expecting love. It’s about humanity and respect. I introduce my white customers to books they would not pick up.”
In Oklahoma City, Belle Books Boutique & More handles the challenges of online business and mixed readership differently. Located near the Ralph Ellison Library, the bookstore, which opened in 2020, is co-owned by Kenyetta Richard and Courtney Strickland, and sells books for young adults, teens, and children, along with a potpourri of T-shirts, hats, boots, sunglasses, and masks.
“We do three pop-up events per month,” Strickland says. “We go to where people are.”
The store also sells a lot of children’s books online for homeschooling. “We probably sold 40 copies of LeBron James’s children’s books,” Strickland notes. “Hair Love is a title that we can’t keep in. We also partner with the Ralph Ellison Foundation on a monthly basis. And we do virtual readings of children’s books based on the virtues that Ellison taught, [including] self-love and voting.”
The bookstore’s white readership is different, in that many of its readers are interested in books about mixed-race children. “They buy books like I Am Mixed, because they may have children who are biracial,” Strickland says.
Strickland and Richard also own Belle Publishing, a publishing services company that offers an array of street literature self-published by local African American authors. “The pandemic has been beneficial to our company, because people have more time on their hands, and this idle time has allowed [authors] to think about publishing unfinished projects,” Strickland says. “We’ve picked up 15 new clients.”
Located in Oakland, Calif., Sistah Scifi is a multipurpose bookstore that exclusively features sci-fi and fantasy books written by Black and Native American women. Its bestselling authors include Tomi Adeyemi, Octavia E. Butler, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnendi Okorafor, and Nisi Shawl, and, like Belle Books, it also caters to a diverse clientele. “I’m proud to say that most of our readers are of the [African] diaspora,” says founder and CEO Isis Asare, “but people who are not of the diaspora are actively looking to read more diverse authors.”
Asare, who was born in Harlem to Ghanaian parents, opened the bookstore in Seattle in 2018 before relocating to the Bay Area the following year. “When shelter-in-place [protocols] started impacting Black businesses across the board in June of last year, more people were searching more actively for Black bookstores and Black businesses online,” she says. “People were reading more and consuming more content. One customer would buy hundreds of dollars’ worth of books from me at a time, so that was great.”
Before Covid, Sistah Scifi’s online events were sparsely attended, but that has not been the case since the pandemic. “We will have a watch party in [February], and we already have 30 registered attendees, which will double before the event happens,” Asare says. “And we’re seeing the same levels of engagement for our book club discussions. I’m also one of the organizers of the Octavia E. Butler Slow Read-Along. We’re reading her full body of work over the course of a year and a half. And for those events, we’ve seen over a thousand [registrants]. That probably would not have happened outside of Covid.”
What is evident now, Asare says, is that the virtual dimension of her store will be here long after the virus is defeated, and it will expand the number of book lovers she reaches. “I think it’s been great to have the virtual events—to not just read the books but to discuss them in a very deep way, across the world on a much bigger scale than we were able to before Covid. It feels like a cultural shift in behavior, and I’m really excited to be a part of that change and that movement.”
Eugene Holley Jr. writes about jazz and African American culture.