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Will Black Bookstores Survive the Digital Era?

Will Black Bookstores Survive the Digital Era?

As a child in Harlem, I had two choices for bookstores: Sisters Uptown Bookstore and Hue-Man Bookstore (before it had a Café).  My love for reading and bookstores grew from these two places. To this day, I prefer hard copy books. Yes, I have a Nook but I’ve only used it once, maybe twice. There is something to be said for flipping the pages of a good book on my couch or pretzeled in a seat on the plane or train. And let’s not front, when we’re reading a good book in public we kind of marvel at the chance for someone to see the cover and ask us about it. No? So fine, it’s just me. Truth is though; we’re living in a digital world. As the times change so does the marketplace for the local, independent brick and mortar bookstore.

The popularity of the Kindle, Nook and print on-demand availability have not only major publishing houses rethinking age-old business models, it is jeopardizing the life expectancy of many small local bookstores. One such bookstore is Hue-Man Bookstore and Café. Owner and founder of Hue-Man, Marva Allen says, “We must take a pause and see how we can become a bookstore of the future.” On July 31, 2012 Hue-Man will be closing the doors of its 125th street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard location. This is a smart business move if you ask me. Here’s why.

Traditionally speaking, the shelf life of a hard copy book starts in a warehouse. Publishers distribute books far and wide at wholesale cost to bookstores, like Hue-Man. When books aren’t sold over time, the leftovers are returned to the warehouses by the bookstore, leaving the bookstore (and publisher) at a loss. Meanwhile, on-demand printing juggernauts are marketing its cost and efficiency advantages to many smaller publishers and self-publishing authors who can’t afford the overhead cost of storing large quantities of books.

“It’s expensive to have your book printed in the traditional way. On-demand printing works for authors with a regular 9 to 5. It’s easier to shell out $500 than it is $5,000 when you only need a small quantity of books,” says veteran literary agent and book publicist Dawn Michelle Hardy, founder of Dream Relations PR. This too affects inventory for indie bookstores. And then there is every bookstore and publisher’s arch nemesis, Amazon; a plan of mortal destruction is being contrived against them, I’m sure. Further, with the ease of e-books many authors, including Hardy’s clients, are challenged with how to market their hard-copy books. “No one is coming to see you sit at a table signing books, except if you are a celebrity,’ shares Hardy, ‘not when they can just download the e-book.” So where do these publishing debacles put our beloved local bookstores?  Exactly in the place of Hue-Man: Re-thinking their business strategy.

“We are going to take this transitional time to go back to the drawing board to re-imagine how to deliver books in this digital age”, says Allen. Even though sales have been up nearly 40% this year for the bookstore, realistically signing a new 10-year lease for the store’s space would not be strategic. Allen sees a bigger picture for Hue-Man. A picture that will not include the traditional brick and mortar bookstore in another decade’s time but rather an increased online presence. According to The Reading Renaissance featured on the NYT’s The Opinionator, the sale of e-books by independent bookstores, among other factors, ‘are fueling the resurgence of independent bookstores,” said Oren Teicher, head of The American Booksellers Association. Hue-Man 2.0 will also lead the way in pop-up book signings around the Harlem community.  “The future of  [hard copy] book sales is really in the creativity of curating book signing events,” says Hardy. “[Hue-Man] made a very cost-effective and progressive decision to close the store and focus on what will really drive revenue,” concluded Hardy.

Hue-Man Bookstore and Café stood as a nucleus for African-American authors and writers seeking the eyes and ears of the Black New York City community. It also provided a literary outlet for the Harlem community; adults and children alike. The outpouring of love and support for Hue-Man has been overwhelming. Support that includes timeless authors like Terry McMillan. Ms. McMillan shared her sentiments with me: “It breaks my heart that Hue-Man is closing. I remember when there were 64 African-American bookstores in the U.S. I think we may be down to four. Hue-Man was a force of nature in NYC. Marva Allen did all she could to save it. I just pray the new venture is supported.” A gentleman also came into the store recently and asked Allen if he got on his knees and begged, would she keep the store open? His gesture, ‘really just brought tears to my eyes’, said Allen.

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Harlem will miss its bookstore. I will miss my bookstore. However, I am at peace knowing that it will be coming back to us in a version that is competitive and relevant for this day and time. Here’s to bigger and better things for Hue-Man Bookstore and Café and to all of the local bookstores seeking to remain relevant in these changing times.

Ebonie Johnson Cooper is a freelance writer and young philanthropist. Her energy can be read weekly on Friends of Ebonie. She grew up in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, NY across from the building where Duke Ellington called home. Follow her on @EbsTheWay.

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