African-American Booksellers Look For a Turnaround

By Judith Rosen |
Feb 14, 2014

At first glance, there might not seem much cause for celebrating the future of African-American bookstores during Black History Month. The country’s oldest African-American bookstore, Marcus Books in San Francisco (open for 44 years), is in rough financial straits. The Shrine of the Black Madonna liquidated its Detroit store earlier this month, according to the Detroit Free Press, and its Houston store is closed for “restructuring.”

The number of black bookstores has declined precipitously since 2002, when the American Booksellers Association counted 300 members. Today there are fewer than 100, according to Troy Johnson, president of the African American Literary Book Club (AALBC.com), who maintains a list by state. But with the opening of Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti, Mich., in November, the projected opening of Ancestry Books in Minneapolis in June, and MahoganyBooks.com looking to open a physical bookstore by 2016, it’s possible that things are

The problem is “the ecosystem,” Johnson said, adding, “In addition to losing bookstores, we’re losing platforms [to promote books].” He cited as an example the closure of publications like Black Issues magazine. African-American books in general are receiving less exposure since the demise of Borders, which had a strong African-American section. And the Web is not a great help to discoverability: online search engines can bring up personal problems, such as tax issues for well-known black writers like Zane, rather than information about books.

Areas like metro Washington, D.C./Baltimore have lost major bookstores in recent years, most notably the 2008 closing of Karibu Books, the country’s largest black bookstore chain. Last fall another area chain, the Literary Joint Book Lounge, which specializes in urban fiction, history, conspiracy, and self-published books, shrank from five stores to a single 2,000-sq.-ft. “lounge” in Suitville, Md. Founder LaQuita Adams, who got her start in the book business publishing fiction through Five Star Publishing, said that she purposely kept “bookstore” out of TLJ’s name. “ ‘Bookstore’ is very traditional,” she said. “Readers aren’t interested in coming to a bookstore. It’s boring.” To enliven TLJ, she does lots of events, including a combined grand opening and book release party in November for K’Wan’s Animal 2: The Omen (Cash Money).

During the recession, real estate became a key concern and it continues to be a stumbling block. Marcus Books is in the midst of a $1 million fundraising campaign to “Keep It Lit” on gofundme.com to supplement the $1.7 million it has already raised to buy back its Bop City building, a historic landmark in San Francisco. If enough donations don’t come in by the end of February, the store could move—or close. Co-owner Karen Johnson, who compares being a bookseller to being a sharecropper—“you don’t make enough on the sale of one book for another book”—told PW, “I expect it to work out.”

Kevin Roberts, cofounder and co-owner of seven-year-old Azizi Books in Matteson, Ill., is unsure about his store’s fate. He launched BlackBooksDirect.com before opening the bookstore with his daughter, Maia, one month after both received their M.B.A.s. When Borders closed, the store added many mainstream titles and boasts the largest selection of African-American children’s books in Chicagoland. Although sales rose 20% from 2011 to 2012 when Azizi tripled in size to 4,500 sq. ft., its fate rests with the mall itself, which emerged from bankruptcy in June 2012. Last summer the Village of Matteson sued and threatened to close the building. “A receiver was appointed by the court,” explained Roberts, “and the property is now in limbo once again. “We are taking a patient approach to understanding what would work best for us. It’s a place where people of all kinds can come together. We want to be in a community which values that,” said Roberts. click to read the entire artlce

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