TURNING THE PAGE

Black-owned indie bookstores look forward to the next chapter

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Yvonne Blake’s father, Dawud Hakim, started out selling books from the trunk of his car in the 1950s, after reading J.A. Rogers’ 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro. Textbooks didn’t cover black history or culture when Hakim went to school, and they weren’t teaching it when Yvonne went either. And so he took matters into his own hands.

Soon, Hakim opened a bookstore in West Philadelphia that was truly one of a kind. He sold books by black people, books on black history, books on black culture, and natural healthcare. It worked. Hakim’s House of Knowledge Bookstore wasn’t only profitable, it was popular. Hakim was so good at his job that major booksellers bought books from him wholesale to cater to the African American demographic.

After Dawud died in 1997, his daughter Yvonne was left to try and guide the store through the rise of e-books, the collapse of Borders, and the reemergence of the American independent bookstore. Hakim’s was almost a casualty of the changing book marketplace. “I was about to close the store last year,” Yvonne told me on the phone. “I really thought our time had passed.”

It’s hard to keep a bookstore open, even if it’s the nation’s oldest bookstore catering to black readers.

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There aren’t very many indie bookstores owned by people of color left in the United States. According to a calculation by the African American Literature Book Club (AALBC), 197 black-owned independent bookstores have closed since 2002. As of 2014, only 54 remained. That’s just more than 21%.

“There was a larger conversation about books 10 years ago than there is today,” Troy Johnson, the founder and president of AALBC, told me. “Ten years ago, this decline [in the number of black-owned bookstores] would have been big news.”

It’s a huge drop, but not one that can be written off as mismanagement. Independent bookstores have seen a huge drop-off across the board since the early 2000s. A large chunk of the booksellers who have had to close their doors due to the rise of e-books and Amazon have been independent bookstores. Between 2002 and 2011, the number of independent bookstores in the United States dropped from 2,400 to just 1,900.

Part of the problem is that indie bookstores simply can’t compete on price with a major corporation like Amazon, which can afford to sell new bestsellers at a loss. “A physical bookstore cannot do that. In the black community and in many communities, people are price sensitive,” Troy told me.

But a bookstore is about more than money. A bookstore is about community and conversation, for better or worse. As George Orwell wrote in a 1936 essay, a bookstore “is one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money.”

I talked to the owners of four different black-owned bookstores and this is something they all repeated. Ronald Davis, who owns Wild Fig Bookstore in Lexington, Kentucky, told me they are having a hard time finding out who their best customer base is. Wild Fig shut down after four years operating in the space of a former used bookstore only to find a new home in the neighborhood of North Limestone.

“Like records, it is the younger generation that are interested in physical books,” Davis said. “But those people are also waiting on their next paycheck to come in before they can buy a book. They don’t have money just laying around.”

Davis is right. According to data gathered by the Small Business Development Center Network, the people most likely to buy books are 45 to 64 years old, with high incomes, married, and college graduates. The young people who want physical books instead of e-readers might not be able to afford them.

Since 2011, the decline has slowed down. The collapse of major bookstores like Borders has made more room in the market for independent booksellers. In fact, indie bookstores in the United States have seen growth since 2011. Not only has the number of stores increased, but sales at independent bookstores have grown about 8% a year from 2011 to 2014.

But many black-owned businesses are still looking for their comeback. “There are people who lived in this neighborhood for 10 years, and had no idea there was a bookstore there,” Ronald told me about the used bookstore he and his wife took over for. “They would come in and ask ‘When did this open?’ and I would say, ’25 years ago.'”

Yvonne found that publicity was a huge part of her problem, too. When Philadelphia’s The Inquirer wrote an article in 2015 about Yvonne’s struggles to make ends meet and the potential closure of Hakim’s, the city rallied around the store, contributing to a GoFundMe drive and giving Yvonne a swell in business she hadn’t seen in years.

Since then, Yvonne has hired some younger people with “innovative ideas,” and opened an on-site café to try and make a little more money. “I got a renewed spirit,” she said. “This was my dad’s passion, but I really think this matters. This store is important.”

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Keeping an independent bookstore open is difficult no matter what community you’re trying to serve. But for black bookstore owners, they feel like the stakes are higher. For stores like Yvonne’s that sell and focus on black books and culture, the bookstore can serve as an educational space.

“The culture and the knowledge today with the political scene seems like it is totally missing. There are a lot of African Americans who have no clue about their history,” Yvonne told me. And she views it as part of Hakim’s job to help educate the masses.

“There is really a need for not just African Americans but for Americans in general to learn that we have a history and culture, especially with all the racism and the violence against African Americans,” Yvonne said. “So much stems from ignorance. I think people need to read a book.”

Stores like Hakim’s also provide exposure for books written by black authors that might not otherwise get covered anywhere else. “Sure, The New York Times will review some books or some books written by black authors, but it’s not going to be a lot of them,” Troy told me. “There are many, many talented writers out there whose books deserve attention and they won’t get that attention.”

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Ultimately, though, bookstores may be more about physical space than anything else. For generations, bookstores have provided room for organization and conversation for activists and community members alike. “Bookstores are typically places where conversations take place. Sometimes the books may start the conversation, but it’s a place where ideas are shared,” Troy told me. “It’s important [to have black-owned book stores] because it’s important to have space.”

Of course, just because a bookstore’s owners are black doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on their offerings. Wild Fig doesn’t focus on black authors or black culture books. They stock a more general selection of books, including some children’s literature. For Ronald, the importance of black-owned bookstores isn’t about the content you’re selling as much as it is about making the people you’re selling to feel comfortable.

“There are several businesses along this strip that people of color won’t go into because they don’t feel comfortable,” Ronald told me. “We are so conditioned when it comes to race that some of that stigma is hard for us to overcome, but it’s important that we try.”

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The future of black-owned bookstores is still very precarious. With the economy stable and a low unemployment rate, the rapid decline seen between 2002 and 2011 seems to have plateaued. But many owners are still trying to figure out how exactly to stay profitable while serving their customer base.

“You have to have determination, and you have to really love what you’re doing,” Yvonne told me. “This isn’t the kind of thing you get into because you think you’re going to be a millionaire.”

For now, Hakim’s is saved. The bookstore still sells 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro from the same West Philadelphia storefront as it did in 1959, but the world is different now. And bookstores are still trying to figure out how to fit into it—through cafés or book signings or social media.

“All I can do is share the fact that I want to hold a book in my hand,” Yvonne told me, “and hope that book will help people see how important black books can be.”