When MahoganyBooks opened in the Anacostia Arts Center in 2017, it was the first new bookstore in southeast Washington, D.C., in 20 years. Though the store was new, owners and husband and wife Derrick and Ramunda Young were already veteran booksellers, having worked in D.C.-area bookstores in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the nearly four years since it opened, the store has garnered national recognition for its emphasis that books by Black authors matter. That focus led Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose Bookstore, also in D.C., to say that Mahogany has quickly risen to become “one of the leading Black-owned bookstores in the country.”
The Youngs opened MahoganyBooks—named for their daughter—in 2007 as an online-only and events business. Specializing in books by and for Black readers, they developed a steady following and base from which they opened the physical location 10 years later, in a neighborhood where Derrick Young spent many years as a child, visiting his grandmother.
From the start, the combination of community ties and tech savvy have been at the root of the Youngs’ vision for what an independent bookstore should be. They opened their bricks-and-mortar location at a time when Black-owned bookstores were in steep decline but today are at the forefront of a revival.
Over the past four years, the Youngs have gone from employing one part-time bookseller to having 13 employees. In part, the store’s growth hinged on robust community events. Before the pandemic, their connection to the Anacostia Arts Center space gave them ample room to host large-scale readings while maintaining 500 sq. ft. for books and browsing.
Among those books are titles that have often been overlooked by traditional publishers, covering a range of subjects, from cookbooks to philosophy, all focused on representing the breadth of literature in the African diaspora. The Youngs inform customers about books that are in danger of going out of print—books, they say, that “must remain in print.” To build a list carrying those titles involves tracking down small publishers, emphasizing self-published titles from within the community, and engaging customers around major cultural and literary events for Black communities.
At the root of the Youngs’ work is a mission to confront the disempowerment of Black readers. “For centuries, Black people have been portrayed as only slaves, people of struggle, dangerous, stupid, uneducated,” the Youngs said in their statement in response to the nomination. “A new narrative is paramount for all readers.”
During 2020, the Youngs’ mission received widespread support. MahoganyBooks closed in March due to the pandemic, but during the wave of protests following the murder of George Floyd, its long-standing focus on technology made it a lifeline for readers. Between May and October, more than 100,000 books were ordered through its website, and its social media presence grew.
Many of MahoganyBooks’ new customers who wanted to learn more as a result of Black Lives Matter protests are not Black, and the Youngs spent much of last summer finding ways to ensure that they return and discover works they might otherwise not know. The store has also developed partnerships with groups like Donors Choose to expand the diversity of classroom and library bookshelves in schools across the country, and a growing roster of prominent authors have sought it out for virtual events. In 2020, the store hosted some of the nation’s leading literary and political leaders, including former president Barack Obama, Rev. Al Sharpton, Ibram X. Kendi, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Gabrielle Union.
But though 2020 was a year of largely virtual bookselling, the Youngs are also deepening their investment in physical space. In June they will open a new store at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County, Md. As vaccinations increase and browsing becomes more possible, they are eager to get back to the personal connections with readers that they work so hard to cultivate, beginning with ensuring that Black readers know they are respected and valued from the moment they walk through the door.
“It is important that our customers are treated like family,” the Youngs said in their statement. “We ask questions, build a rapport, identify their joys, fears, or pain when it comes to reading. We aim to understand the needs and wants of our customers, and that they understand we are making a thoughtful, well-considered recommendation.”