The publishing world has had to adapt to a business landscape that is rapidly changing as a result of the pandemic and the response to continuing police violence against unarmed Black people. The 130 Black-owned bookstores in the U.S. have had to deal with these broader challenges, as well as with cultural and economic forces that uniquely affect them.
Marcus Books, one of the country’s best-known and oldest Black bookstores, was cofounded in 1960 in San Francisco by two African American doctors, husband-and-wife team Julian and Raye Richardson. Rising rents forced Marcus Books to close its San Francisco store six years ago, but it moved to Oakland.
The pandemic hit a few weeks after Raye’s death, at age 99, on February 11. “We closed briefly due to the death of our mother,” said Blanche Richardson, Julian and Raye’s daughter, who now runs Marcus Books. “Then the Covid-19 rules came down and we had to cancel plans for her memorial as well as our 60th anniversary celebrations and events. We stayed ‘open’ to receive book deliveries and take phone and mail orders. Later, we instituted curbside pick up, then allowed customers to come into the store as long as they followed the Covid safety guidelines.”
Richardson had taken down the store’s website in early February in order to make upgrades. “We did create a temporary method for online purchases but were overwhelmed with 200–300 orders a day,” she said. “We shut it down in order to fulfill all of the orders.” The new site is expected to be up in September; in the meantime, Richardson is taking orders over the phone.
In Goose Creek, S.C., VaLinda Miller, a co-owner of Turning Pages Bookshop, the only Black-owned bookstore in the state, faced her own challenges. A former resident of Washington, D.C., she opened the store last year. “We were shut down for about six weeks, from April until the middle of May,” she said. “But I’m one of the blessed ones. I saw the writing on the wall. So when we shut down, I knew we could cover the expenses of the business. I knew we weren’t making any sales, but I could still pay my one employee, because my other employee got unemployment compensation from another job. So we were okay.” Turning Pages also upgraded its website when the pandemic hit and reopened gradually.
As challenging as this period is for bookstores like Marcus Books and Turning Pages, other outlets, like Semicolon, a new bookstore in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood, are seeing growth. “The pandemic has actually given us a boost, because everybody started paying us more attention and found out we actually existed,” said owner D.L. Mullen. “We had never done any marketing: we wanted every visit to [the physical store] to be organic. But people started sharing us more on social media. We went from 3,000 followers to 66,000 followers in one week.”
The extra attention brought more support. “We have definitely done well during the pandemic,” Mullen said.
Black Garnet Bookshop understands the plight of Black people and their struggles with law enforcement: it’s located in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by police in May, making the city ground zero for the Black Lives Matter protests of recent months. The bookstore is a virtual one; it opened on July 29, with a bricks-and-mortar location forthcoming. Named after a gem with healing properties, the bookstore is the brainchild of owner Dionne Sims, who was inspired by the Floyd protest to do something tangible for the community. “I needed to be doing something where I’m hands-on in the community where I could see faces, make connections, and give back in a way that is long-term and sustainable,” she said.
Sims said that as she looked for books to buy following Floyd’s death, she realized that there weren’t any Black bookstores in Minnesota. Sims tweeted that her dream was to open a bookstore and the tweet went viral. Opening a store, she said, “is something our community really needed in the midst of all of this hurt and pain, and all of the healing we would need to go forward. Bookstores can provide that kind of space for healing and self-empowerment.”
A GoFundMe page launched by Sims hit her goal of $72,000 within two days. “There was an incredible outpouring of support from people within and outside the state,” she said. “I was able to quit my full-time job, and now this bookstore is my full-time job.”
When Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements began to attract widespread attention, people were ordering only anti-racist titles, Mullen at Semicolon said. “But we made a point to introduce Black fiction to our readers,” she added. “We made it a point to do that every time someone ordered an anti-racist title.”
Among the books recommended at Semicolon are titles by Octavia Butler, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and N.K. Jemison, as well as Kiley Reeves’s Such a Fun Age and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (which Mullen said did very well), plus “any Afro-futuristic writer.” She added, “Fiction is easier to understand, and something you can build empathy from, as opposed to statistics and numbers. Anti-racism is rooted in empathy—you have to understand the plight before you can support it.”
As Richardson of Marcus Books sees it, “Following the murder of Mr. Floyd and the resultant worldwide protests against police brutality, our inventory was basically the same, but with the inclusion of more titles dealing with the various issues surrounding race, diversity, police brutality, and institutional racism. Since Black had become the flavor of the month, books in all categories sold very well—including fiction, children’s books, cookbooks, biography, and even spirituality.”
With the chaos of Covid-19 and the growth of Black Lives Matter, what does the future hold for Black bookstores? “As a culture, and as a society, we are now starting to realize the importance and the beauty that Black people and Black businesses bring to the community,” said Black Garnet’s Sims. “And for white people, this is a time for them to be thoughtful and intentional about where they are putting their money and where their dollars are going. And even in places where people are not ready to make space for Black businesses—or Black bookstores specifically—we are at a point where we will carve out a place for ourselves. That’s what I’m doing here.”
Richardson believes Black booksellers need to keep their focus amid the tumult. “Black bookstores should do well as long as they serve their communities and provide the information and knowledge that the community seeks,” she said. “We frequently hear from new customers—mostly white and Asian—that they are patronizing us because they want to support a Black business. How long that will last is yet to be seen, so Black bookstores should concentrate on being true to their basic target population.”
Eugene Holley Jr. writes about jazz and African American culture.