Supporting African-American bookstores

It’s summer, and now is the time when Americans want to catch up on their favorite authors on the beach. It has become more common these days for people to purchase their books online, at chain bookstores or, if you are really “with it,” download ebooks into the Kindle. However, before you go out to get the latest book from the New York Times bestselling list or Oprah’s book club at any of the above outlets mentioned, consider supporting your local, independent book store first.

With the rise of Internet giant Amazon.com, locally owned bookstores nationwide are having a hard time staying competitive and open. Hundreds of these literary gems across the country are either closing or are seriously endangered of closing, and the brutal economy has not made the situation any better. This should be of concern to African Americans, as many of them are black owned and operated.

For our community, black bookstores have generally been, and still are, the center of black intellectual thought and exchange of ideas. If you want to learn about who you are, the black bookstore is where you go. For many of us, our first experience in such a store is when we want to purchase books and candles for our Kwanzaa celebrations.

There was a time when black bookstores were the only places where you could find literature by and about black folks for both adult and especially youth readers. Access to multicultural school curriculums have improved greatly in recent years, thanks in part to black bookstores. I have worked for many years in my local black bookstore, Jamaicaway Books and Gifts, the only bookstore specializing in multicultural literature in New England. The owners of the store have worked with many educators in the Boston area for over 10 years to support literacy for children of color.

In addition, these bookstores give up and coming writers their first break and support already established black writers. A couple of months ago, I was in New York and had a chance to attend a book reading by California Rep. Barbara Lee of her latest book at Harlem’s Hue-Man Bookstore. In the middle of her talk, Rep. Charlie Rangel dropped by and started to talking to the audience about his long political relationship with Lee. You wouldn’t see such an intimate, impromptu conversation at your local Barnes & Noble. There is something about being in a black bookstore where we can just let our hair down and keep it real with other kinfolk.

This might be attributed to the fact that many black bookstores have historically been used as meeting spaces for us for social gatherings and to discuss important political issues. Oakland’s Marcus Bookstore, named after black nationalist Marcus Garvey, is the oldest independent black bookstore in the country. During the height of the civil rights movement, black activists used the store to strategize marches and rallies in the Bay Area. The store’s printing press also produced pamphlets for the Black Panthers.

Sure, I’ll admit that there are many temptations to going online; within minutes, you can have any book you want mailed to you the next business day. I’m guilty as charged; I’ve purchased books at Amazon a couple of times. But there is something about going into a local bookstore and actually touching and sifting through the pages of a brand new book, even if isn’t a book you weren’t even looking for.

Most of the best books I have read are ones I found just browsing a store. There is also something great about going into a black bookstore, and the person behind the counter who can help you find that book about Fannie Lou Hamer or who can actually tell you the meaning of Juneteenth.

Clearly, there is an interest in supporting black literacy. Approximately, 50,000 bookworms will descend in New York next week for the Harlem Book Fair, the country’s largest black book festival.

But, ultimately, we need to also transfer our love for books into our local black bookstores. We should support black bookstores because we not only support our local economy, but also our history.