Katie Mitchell, co-owner of Good Books in Atlanta, runs an online and pop-up bookshop with her mom, Katherine. 'Things are trendy for a while ... and then they're not,' she says. (Lynsey Weatherspoon for NPR)
A little under a year ago, Eso Won Books, a Black-owned bookstore in Los Angeles, hosted Ibram X. Kendi for a signing. Eso Won sold about 40 copies of Kendi’s newest book, How to Be an Antiracist, that night. In the months after, they sold very few.
But in these past few weeks? They’ve sold 500 copies—and counting.
In fact, Eso Won is the busiest it’s been in three decades (and it’s hosted the likes of Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Muhammad Ali.) The store’s owners, James Fugate and Tom Hamilton, along with a handful of other workers, are now filling hundreds of new orders each day—compared with the few dozen they normally had.
As protests and conversations about race have gripped the country, two phenomena have accompanied it: widespread sharing of anti-racist reading lists and a renewed call to support Black businesses. Black-owned bookstores have found themselves in the middle of that zeitgeist. Local bookstores are being asked to keep up with national and even international demand. And businesses that were in danger of shutting down because of the coronavirus are suddenly selling more books than ever.
But as Black bookstore owners race to meet their demands, many are dealing with complicated, sometimes painful feelings about what the new business means.
At Eso Won, titles such as How to Be an Anti-Racist and White Fragility have been popular, Fugate says, and lesser-known titles about race have also been selling unusually well. The demand has kept Fugate in the store from 6 in the morning until 8 at night, packaging books to bring to the post office, handling invoices and answering emails from customers asking for updates. “It’s never, never like this,” he says.
Fugate says he’s amazed at how dramatically the tide has turned for his store. He remembers a Zoom call with Paul Coates, the founder of Black Classic Press, who has been organizing Black booksellers to help them stay alive during the pandemic. “I said, ‘Everybody has to promote themselves. You have to do emails promoting the books,’” he says. Now, the promotion has taken on a life of its own—one that he never envisioned.
“I was first [thinking] it’s like Christmas and we’re not prepared. And [then] I thought, no, I don’t want to compare this to Christmas, because you hear [George Floyd] moaning and yelling on the ground,” he says. “It makes you sick to your stomach.”
In conversations with Black bookstore owners across the country, just about everyone echoed the same things. Managers from Underground Books in Sacramento, California and Source Booksellers in Detroit say they’re swamped with orders and working as quickly as they can to get them out. Many say they’re grateful for the business, especially as the pandemic had forced them to close their doors temporarily. But they’re heartbroken by the circumstances—outrage over videos and stories of police brutalizing Black people—and can’t help but wonder how long the surge in interest will last.
Fears and uncertainty about remaining in business are rooted in these Black bookstores’ history. They’ve have always had to fight for their existence—the FBI’s COINTELPRO program even used to monitor them for supposedly being “culture centers for extremism.” On top of a long legacy of Black businesses being denied loans and capital, the mandatory shutdowns during the pandemic—and Black-owned businesses’difficulties accessing government relief funds—became a new kind of existential threat.
Marcus Books in Oakland, California, the oldest Black independent bookstore in the country, was in danger of going under. It had launched a GoFundMe to help stay afloat as sales became “borderline stagnant” and foot traffic disappeared, says Cherysse Calhoun, who helps run Marcus Books with her mother, Blanche Richardson. Calhoun’s grandparents founded the store in 1960.
The store has been a community pillar ever since, attracting customers such as Malcolm X and featuring events from Maya Angelou to Toni Morrison. Locals who shopped there decades ago now bring their children and grandchildren, Calhoun says, which she treasures: “We have that base, which lifts us up every single time, any time we’re at the edge of our own exhaustion.”
And right now, they’re exhausted. Marcus Books is a family operation, which means that cousins, aunts and uncles have been pitching in to answer phones and take messages, placing and organizing orders, and taking things to the post office. “We’ve had volunteers over the past few weeks who have just come in to answer the phone,” Calhoun says. “One of us has to step in so that they can even just use the bathroom or go to lunch ... because you can literally stand there from 10 to 6 and just answer the phone.”
But the attention, while appreciated, feels strange. Calhoun notes that a lot of titles that have been selling out—The Warmth of Other Suns, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and books by James Baldwin and Assata Shakur—have been out for years, even decades.
“For Black booksellers, it’s so exciting for people to be interested and wanting to learn and grow their minds and their spirits with this type of literature,” Calhoun says. “But it’s also so disheartening to have to think that there’s just such a large group of people ... were actually in a position not to have to educate themselves this way [before now]. That part makes me sad.”
Malik Muhammad, owner of Malik Books in Los Angeles, had recently fought to keep developers from buying Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a historically Black mall that houses his bookstore. (The developer, CIM Group, reportedly scrapped its plans to buy the mall and turn it into a mixed-use complex last week.)
Muhammad is also excited about the renewed calls to support Black businesses such as his; he says it’s taken a lot of work and struggle to get here. He and his family, who help him run the store, have been stocking books about Black history and anti-racism for decades—long before it was popular. “The last two weeks have been overwhelming. It’s been a blessing, and it gave me hope that hard work pays off,” he says. “You know, it didn’t just happen overnight.”
Still, the future remains uncertain for many Black bookstores. As quickly as some Americans have ordered books on anti-racism, they’re just as likely to turn their attention to something else, says Katie Mitchell, co-owner of Good Books in Atlanta.
“Things are trendy for a while ... and then they’re not, once it’s comfortable for people that go back to their old ways,” Mitchell says. “Will it still be going on a year from now, or is it just a flash in the pan?”
Mitchell says she’s been wrestling with how she feels about this moment. She spent a lot of time last year reaching out to publications about profiling her store, to little avail. Now, in a news cycle revolving around Black death, the store has been getting the kind of attention it had wanted earlier.
“We’re making a lot of money, and we’re happy that people are reading books. But it took the lynching of George Floyd to be played on a loop for people to be interested in things that we’ve been pushing for, you know, for a long time,” she says. “I’d much rather George Floyd be alive.”