What with behemoths like Borders and Barnes & Nobles plying the masses with square footage, seats-a-plenty, embedded coffee shops and the low prices economies of scale allow, it’s difficult even for even literary locavores to patronize independent bookstores yet booklovers are still drawing up business plans and leasing storefronts. In fact, the New York Times‘ City Room blog recently spotlighted a few upstart booksellers while pondering their viability.
Well, StoryCorps already gleaned some insight into the subject thanks to Buffalo, New York couple Kenneth and Sharon Holley. Visitors to our MobileBooth in July, the Holleys, who met at the North Jefferson library where Sharon worked when Kenneth popped in to check out a book by John A. Williams, recounted two decades spent owning and operating the now defunct Harambee Books.
I didn’t facilitate this conversation, that task went to Whitney Henry-Lester, but I did get a chance to edit this interview for potential broadcast. You see, when not leaned over a log sheet in the Foley Square StoryBooth, I and other facilitators are often in StoryCorps’ Brooklyn office editing many of your conversations into two to three minute segments. In this particular instance, I happened upon an interview that dovetailed with my interests: the Holleys’ bookstore specialized in titles of African American interest and my undergraduate and graduate study was in literature and African Diasporic studies.
I can’t overemphasize how much the Holley’s afternoon conversation contextualized a range of issues, from the importance of literacy and education to African Americans to the rise of Street Lit. To be literate and African American was once an especially dangerous combination. Enslaved Africans were widely proscribed from reading, writing or teaching these basic skills to their progeny during of American slavery’s brutal four century long tenure. In the instances where enslaved individuals acquired these skills, they often put them to use in liberatory efforts, not the least of which were slave narratives, which broadcast the atrocities of American bondage and helped abolitionists shift public opinion.
So beyond being an independent bookstore, being an independent Black bookstore has a special significance. The Holleys’ bookstore wasn’t just a place to pick up a copy of Toni Cade Bambara’s latest collection of short stories or A.B. Spellman’s jazz histories, it was a venue that served the social and political needs of the Black Buffalo community. Sharon Holley explained,
We looked at the bookstore as a meeting place. Even people who I see today who say, “Aww, I sure wish you had that bookstore back.” And you know, I look at them, I remember, “I don’t remember them buying a lot of books.” But they would come there all the time. It was like the place where you found out what was going on in the Black community.
The late Alfred Ligon, proprietor of the oldest Black bookstore in Los Angeles, now defunct, offered a similar analysis of Black bookstores in a 1982 interview with the Los Angeles Times,
“It’s a starvation business. But we’re an institution. Even just a trickle of people who want these books justifies our existence.”
Ligon’s bookstore closed in the nineties as did the Holleys and enumerable independent bookstores serving various demographics throughout the nation. So consider what is your relationship to your local bookstore, be it a chain, or a independent. Are you attracted by low prices or programming, the breadth of titles or quirkier stocks? Has a bookstore opened or closed in your neighborhood in the past few years? What was is impact? Share your thoughts in the comments.