black-owned bookstores
You have the power to support Black-owned businesses. (Illustration by Amy Young, School of Visual Arts)

How and Why You Should Support Black-Owned Bookstores

They are often essential community institutions, and their continued survival during the pandemic is now more important than ever.

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black-owned bookstores

They are often essential community institutions, and their continued survival during the pandemic is now more important than ever.

As the coronavirus rages throughout the country, Black-owned businesses have suffered the most. According to research from the University of California at Santa Cruz, 40% will not survive the pandemic. In the beginning of February, there were over 1 million Black-owned businesses in the United States. That number plummeted to 440,000 in mid-April. In comparison, the research showed that only 17% of white-owned businesses had closed in the same time frame. Black-owned bookstores in particular have been struggling long before the pandemic.

The pandemic is not the only threat Black-owned businesses are facing. Looters taking advantage of the Black Lives Matter protests also impacted Black-owned businesses. Many endured thousands of dollars in damages that only compounded on the pre-existing pandemic financial catastrophes. Some owners say that looters and vandals completely destroyed their businesses.

Only 23% of Black-owned businesses had access to bank credit, while 46% of white-owned businesses did. Such a blatant disparity puts Black-owned businesses at a disadvantage when applying for emergency aid. Around 95% were kept out of small business initiatives; moreover, a majority of Black-owned businesses that applied for the Paycheck Protection Program were denied a loan. Furthermore, many Black-owned businesses are either micro-enterprises or the owner does not have viable financial reserves. This makes them particularly vulnerable during a pandemic.

For years, Black-owned bookstores have existed on the outskirts of the publishing world. They had to stand against the advent of digital reading, online purchasing and audiobooks. Meanwhile, commercial chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon Books have posed a massive threat to smaller establishments. Gentrification and unaffordable rents have caused stores to shut down completely. To survive COVID-19, some shops have opted for online sales and virtual events.

The popularity of Black-owned bookstores usually coincides with social movements. The Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s saw an increased interest in African American literature and culture. During this time, these were spaces that functioned not only as bookstores, but as havens for the communities they served.

“Black bookstores are not just in the mission to sell books. Their mission is to make sure that the information they are carrying expands their community and expands the minds of the people in the community,” said W. Paul Coates, founder and director of Black Classic Press.

In the height of the pandemic, Black-owned bookstores have turned to these communities in their time of need. In fact, even the United States’ oldest Black-owned bookstore, Marcus Books, was facing severe difficulties during the pandemic. The establishment was barely surviving until Folasade Adesanya, one of its oldest customers, started a GoFundMe to support the store in its time of need.

At this pivotal moment in United States history, allies may be asking themselves how they can support the movement. A good place to start is educating yourself on systemic racism. Read about Black history and culture in the United States and the world.

The best way to learn about Black people in America is to read books written about and by them. Thankfully, there is a pantheon of Black literature that describes every facet of Black American culture. There are the narratives of James Baldwin, the poetry of Maya Angelou, the fiction of Toni Morrison and the essays of Audre Lorde. In addition to the established canon, contemporary authors like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Angie Thomas are documenting the Black experience today. The place to find such literature is often in Black-owned bookstores.

If you truly have a desire to learn and support the movement, here is a list of Black-owned bookstores. (Note: These are bookstores that have all moved online or are taking phone orders. If you plan on ordering from any of these bookstores, some are experiencing delays in shipping.)

1. Reparations Club

Los Angeles, CA / @reparations.club

Curated by Blackness and POC, Reparations Club is a concept shop and creative space. It also supports Noname’s Book Club, hosting monthly meetings. The club is a community dedicated to uplifting voices of people of color, highlighting two books a month written by POC authors.

2. Sister’s Uptown Bookstore

New York, NY / @sistersuptown

With the motto, “knowledge is key,” Sister’s Uptown Bookstore was founded by Janifer P. Wilson in January 2000. She wanted to bring a positive change by creating a space that would nurture the minds and spirits of her community. The bookstore has a collection of exceptional Black authors and poets. It is also celebrating 15 years of community service.

3. Underground Books

Sacramento, CA / @sthopeoakpark

When the sole library in Oak Park closed in the 1970s, Kevin Johnson, founder of the nonprofit organization St. Hope, wanted to guarantee that the community had access to books. Since its inception, it has been a communal space for the neighborhood. It also holds events like book signings, radio shows and lectures.

4. Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books

Philadelphia, PA / @unclebobbies

“Cool People. Dope Books. Great Coffee.” Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books was founded by Marc Lamont Hill in 2017. Its goal is to provide marginalized communities access to a curated book selection and space where they could feel valued. Additionally, the store functions as a coffee shop and community space. Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee and Books has also held free author talks and back-to-school drives. Due to the coronavirus, Hill has started a GoFundMe to support his employees.

5. Willa’s Books and Vinyl

Kansas City, MO / @willasbooks

Willa Robinson founded Willa’s Books and Vinyl in the 1990s. The store has a collection of used and rare African American books. It has first editions of classic literature, contemporary books, jazz and blues vinyl and vintage magazines. Some of the classics in their inventory are rare Black Panther comics and literature written during the civil rights movement.

Here is a full list of other Black-owned bookstores to support.

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