MAKING BOOKS; Striving for a Happy Ending To a Black Store’s Struggles

There can be a fierceness about maintaining an independent bookstore in an African-American community that perhaps cannot be imagined elsewhere, where independent stores fail amid some fuss and publicity and are quickly forgotten because there are stimulating alternatives.

But it’s different in a black community. The black bookstore has a resonance greater than simply the sale of books. It is often the central, if not the only, cultural hangout in the neighborhood, and its closing leaves a dreadful emptiness, a marker that nobody cares.

The Rev. Dr. Charles G. Adams, a nationally prominent African-American clergyman in Detroit, put it this way: ”Closing a bookstore is tied to our lack of educational opportunity, lack of intellectual resources that develop our minds. Our schools are understaffed and our libraries operate on very short hours, and bookstores are nonexistent.”

One of the recent epiphanies of book publishing is that there is an increasing black readership that is hungry for books relevant to it. To help feed that need there are now five imprints at major publishing houses devoted to books by African-Americans and about them. But black bookstores, like other independent booksellers, have been assaulted by the big chain stores and online book buying and other venues and, of course, the economy.

When a Shakespeare & Company or a Books & Company closes in Manhattan there is the usual outcry against the chains, and then the stone sinks, the water smooths and what’s gone is submerged because the neighborhood generally has other cultural lures. In an African-American neighborhood, like the one in Detroit served by the Apple Book Center, each bookstore is a place of special possibilities, and its closing an elegy to hope.

Financial troubles have the Apple Book Center on the brink of disappearing, and since this was revealed last week in The Detroit News, the store has become the object of a remarkable community effort to save it. Dr. Adams, who is pastor of the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit, even proposed that shares of common stock in the store be sold for maybe $10 or $20 each to help settle debts reportedly totaling $300,000.

”The presence of a bookstore in the heart of an underserved city that is 80 percent black is a symbol of upward possibility, and we have to keep the symbol in place so people do not become discouraged,” Dr. Adams said, adding that in many black neighborhoods bookstores ”are the source of information and inspiration and understanding, and they help us understand who we are, what we are and what our agenda ought to be.”

A community committee has been formed to save the the six-year-old Apple Book Center, and the store has started selling memberships for store discounts: 10 percent discounts for contributions of $20 to $100 and 20 percent discounts for donations of $101 and more.

Sherry McGee, the Apple Book Center owner, said that with the recession ”sales were pretty much close to operation cost, and then after Sept. 11 they fell below $300-a-day gross and we didn’t have a cushion.” She said her fixed costs were $22,000 a month in the 4,000-square-foot store, which stocks about 25,000 titles.

”We thought Christmas would save us,” she said. ”But we didn’t have a good Christmas, and I just owed everyone.” She said that the store was in ”a large blue-collar area and there were a lot of layoffs.” Then came the Detroit News article on March 4, and ”people started to rally around us.”

”People called crying,” she said. ”The council of Baptist pastors said they would help.”

Kim Trent, a public relations woman for Representative Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a Democrat, helped found the committee, because she said ”its closing would send a negative message about our community; keeping such local stores open is institution building and community building.” When one telephones Thea Todd White, a candidate for the Wayne County Commission, the answering machine message first reminds people to vote for her and then goes on, ”Yes, the city of Detroit is stepping up to the plate once again and we will save our book center, the Apple Book Center” and concludes ”we will keep it within our community.”

Denise Stinson, an African-American literary agent based in Detroit, said: ”When the economy is bad it’s communities like this that are hit the hardest, and communities like this that need bookstores the most. It’s important that the book-selling industry see what’s happening to Apple, and now the same community is coming to its rescue.”

Generally, amid the competition from chains and the economy, African-American bookstores are doing about as well as other independents. Max Rodriguez, publisher of ”QBR: the Black Book Review,” said, however, that ”although the margins for independent bookstores are tight right now, black stores have smaller populations to work with, so it can be harder for them.”

Still, Jawanza Kunjufu, founder and owner of African-American Images in Chicago, the largest black bookstore in the country with 27,000 square feet of space and about 60,000 titles, said that the ”biggest problem we had after 9/11 was that many authors were afraid to fly and so book signings were seriously curtailed, and the signings sell books.”

”But that’s been corrected by time,” he added.

”A restaurant can improve the quality of the food it serves,” he said, ”but we can’t improve the quality of our product. We’ve lowered prices, we have a larger selection of African-American titles and a staff more knowledgeable of those titles.”

And his store, like many of the smaller black bookstores, has become a community center. The smaller stores support black reading clubs. So does African-American Images, but it’s also used for meetings of black professional organizations that have nothing to do with books, like, for instance, travel agents and legal service groups.

Emma Rodgers, owner of Black Images in Dallas, finds business ”challenging, but really kind of O.K.” Her store was started 25 years ago as a mail-order business in a flea market, but is now in a shopping mall. ”There’s a lot of new product out there, not just from the mainstream publishers but from self-publishing and small independent publishers,” she said. ”We are constantly doing things trying to increase our customer base in the community, which we are very much part of.” For instance, she says she has more than 100 reading clubs registered with the store. ”Clubs co-host some of our events,” she said. ”And we post their reading selections, but it’s challenging. We used to gross $1 million annually, and now it’s $750,000. There’s the big stores and the Internet, but we’ve held on.”

Nubian Heritage in Brooklyn has gone a different route. Its owner, Richelieu Dennis, said, ”The downtown area here has been very affected by the recession, but people are starting to come back.” He has an establishment that’s more like an African-American and African department store. ”Books are a big portion, but we sell everything that has anything to do with black culture — art, artifacts, black body products, black financial publications, something for everybody,” he said.

The Apple Book Center is not the only black bookstore in Detroit, and obviously African-American culture does not depend on books alone. But if life is controlled by understanding, then the closing of any bookstore — where understanding is daily on sale between covers in an object easily held in the hand — is a sad event. It’s a nice story, the community gathering together in Detroit to save the store. All that’s needed now is what’s always been needed, for customers to step in and buy. Regularly.


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