A sacred space is disappearing from our communities with too little fanfare: the Black bookstore. Recently, one of the largest Black bookstores in the nation—Hue-Man Bookstore—announced it would shutter its doors in Harlem, the proverbial capital of Black America. Hue-Man is just the latest in a line of Black bookstores in particular, and bookstores in general, that are disappearing from the urban landscape. As bookstores continue to go out of business— if we’re not careful—a culture of literacy, interpersonal engagement and community building may disappear with them.
I am part of the problem. I spend more time and money purchasing books online than going into brick and mortar bookstores. But there was a time when the bookstore was one of my favorite destinations because it held a wealth of information and people who showed me another side to my community, culture, and intellectual life. Black bookstores have never been mega-stores like Barnes & Noble but often have been small individually-run libraries of community enrichment.
The Black bookstore, to me, has always used an inverted capitalism model. Let me explain. Black bookstores have historically been spaces to expose visitors to an alternative set of literatures, histories, and authors. When I first began visiting Black bookstores I would ask them if they carried specific titles. Many times they would not, but a worker or patron would suggest an alternative that they did have in stock. I soon learned to enter and ask, “What do you recommend?” From there I’d be exposed to books that covered revolutionaries on the continent to novels on Caribbean immigrants in the United States. In this way, the inventory wasn’t driven by consumer demand; instead the inventory created a demand among consumers. While intimidating at first, once I became acclimated, it was liberating and enlightening.
Forthcoming research by Marc Lamont Hill stresses the importance of Black bookstores beyond simply selling books. For example, each month Reuben Quansah would coordinate and run a book club at Hue-Man that discussed books ranging from Manning Marable’s tome on Malcolm X to Steve Harvey’s “Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.” The diversity of book subjects was only exceeded by the diversity of minds present, from elders who organized with the Nation of Islam, to high school students who had just been exposed to “Assata.” These types of interactions and discussions can’t be substituted for with Amazon recommendations or even Google+ hangouts. We need Black bookstores because we need more chances to see the diversity and depth of our people. Bookstores provide a place to understand the realities we’ve faced and to plot the path we must tread.
Nationally, traditional bookstores are going the way of the dinosaur and even large-scaled retail stores like Borders have not been able to make ends meet. In seeing Hue-Man close, I’m reminded of strings of independent bookstores like Nkiru Books in Brooklyn, Liberation Bookstore in Harlem, and many others that have come and gone, and of stores like Marcus Books in Oakland, which struggles to remain open. Hue-Man, like others, is exploring different models for online vending and potential partnerships, but this is still a challenge in tepid financial times. Even as we explore these new models we’ll need to make sure that the value of bookstores beyond the books remains for future generations. The hope for Black bookstores is dim, but the need for them is great.
Dr. R. L'Heureux Lewis-McCoy is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York. His work concentrates on race, education and gender. You can follow him on Twitter at @dumilewis or visit his official website