Over the past four decades, W. Paul Coates has become one of the nation’s most knowledgeable scholars on the history of African-American publishing. He has used that knowledge to deepen the catalogue of Baltimore-based Black Classic Press, which he opened in the basement of his home in 1978 to publish out-of-print and obscure works by African-American writers and scholars, including W.E.B. Du Bois, David Walker, and Amiri Baraka.
Black Classic grew out of Coates’s trips to New York City to spend time with Lewis Michaux, who owned the African National Memorial Bookstore on West 125th Street. “You’d find people sitting around discussing black ideas. That is timeless,” Coates recalls.
From Michaux, Coates—who at the time headed Baltimore’s chapter of the Black Panther Party—learned one of the first lessons that would later help him as a publisher: you have to love selling your books, not keeping them. “I used to bargain with him for books,” Coates says. “But he preferred to hold onto his books.”
After leaving the Panthers, Coates opened a bookstore, but he soon realized that publishing was his real passion. In 1995, he brought book manufacturing in-house and began producing short-run materials under the BCP Digital Printing imprint alongside works by Black Classic. Today, BCP Digital Printing generates revenue of more than $1 million a year.
At the same time, Coates has doubled down on his commitment to ensuring that books published by historically important presses don’t disappear. In 2015 he began acquiring titles first published by Associated Publishers, which was founded by historian Carter Woodson. This year Coates will also begin publishing selected titles from the late Tony Martin’s Majority Press.
For Coates, constancy encapsulates the ethic of Black Classic and the broader African-American literary landscape. “I love constancy,” he says. “I respect that.” He sees it especially among the people who ensure his books reach readers: independent African-American booksellers.
“You might have about 50 [black] booksellers around the country who run bricks-and-mortar bookstores, and that is a good sign to me,” Coates says. “It shows me the marketplace is constantly redoing itself. It means that the black community continues to support bookstores as it has in the past.”
One constant that also remains from his days with the Panthers is the danger that Coates sees in doing the work of publishing and selling works by African-American authors. “We need to understand that we live in a society that does not hold sacred freedom of thinking,” Coates says. “It is seen as subversive. It is considered a danger and threat to people, and this has been and it still is.”
As he looks to a new generation of African-American booksellers and publishers, Coates says that they must balance their passion for what they do with a realism about the dangers that come with cultivating that freedom of thinking. “People need to understand that certain people are looking at them as a threat, and still they need to go on and do what needs to be done. That’s not being paranoid. It’s being sober.”
Sobriety doesn’t change Coates’s passion for his work, which he shares with a historian’s eye. “I’m really excited,” he says. “But I was excited then. I have been around long enough to witness it all.”