From Pandemic to Protest, on the Hardships Facing Black-Owned Bookstores

When I started Book Post, a book-reviewing newsletter, about two years ago, after working for many years at The New York Review of Books, I decided we’d link directly to independent booksellers. Partly I wanted to give them the business. But I was partly feeling, after the election of 2016 and how unaware it had—it seemed to me—caught most of us who were supposed to be in the ideas business, that I needed to get out more. I thought I’d partner with bookstores around the country and share news of what they are doing and try to learn more about the ways America reads.

I’d already had very satisfying junkets to Lawrence, Kansas (Raven Book Store) and Cleveland, Ohio (Mac’s Backs), and was learning more about how books are growing out of the shade of their sister storytelling industry in LA, hoping to go out there for their book festival (on the train, maybe?), when the coronavirus called a halt to all biblio-adventuring. Well, I thought, if I can’t have an IRL partnership with my next bookstore, I can at least take the moment as it comes and make a virtual connection with a community grappling with the virus and its implications for books and readers. Wandering down an e-street in Ypsilanti, Michigan, I came across Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center.

Carlos Franklin and Kip Johnson, both Ypsilanti natives, founded Black Stone in 2013. The Ann Arbor News reported it was the only bookstore in the area devoted to African-American books and culture. “We want to create a community,” Carlos told the News. “You can go in there and meet people with powerful minds.” Carlos had been selling books in barber shops and beauty salons and gas stations around Ypsilanti. He came from a humble background, he told me; he was raised by his great-grandparents, who “loved books, loved knowledge.” Then a third-grade teacher began giving him books, and he found reading them “like no other feeling in the world. I wanted to share that feeling.”

Kip Johnson, after being laid off his auto-industry job, began selling books alongside incense and soap on the sidewalks of Ypsilanti and Detroit. People kept asking for more books, Kip said, and borrowing them without giving them back. No one else around was selling books (read our Notebook last year about “book deserts”). One day he bought a carton of books and when it was gone in a flash he said, I could do this. He went looking at Ypsilanti’s empty storefronts and discovered landlords were surprisingly receptive to the prospect of a bookstore. Needing a partner to help fund renovations (and teach him how to operate a cash register), he found Carlos, who had more business experience, and they’ve been running Black Stone together ever since. They’re a bit of a mutual admiration society. “He was rooting me on,” Kip has said, and Carlos: “I’d say he’s like a brother—we don’t agree on everything but we’re still good, we’re scorpios, it comes together like a marriage.” Black Stone also sells incense and jewelry and African-inspired art and clothing. “You can’t survive on books alone,” says Kip, but it’s clear that the ambiance is part of the experience they are offering customers: “We want to create a good spirit where people come because they like the product. The world is round and it’ll go back to books,” Carlos told the Ann Arbor News. He told a local newsletter, “We have a bunch of barbershops and car washes here, but I wanted to do something different to build the community up.” They even created a “think tank” in the back of the store where kids could do homework and read, and they could also host readings and parties and signings.

Carlos had been selling books in barber shops and beauty salons and gas stations around Ypsilanti.

When I called Carlos, in mid April, Michigan had the fourth most coronavirus cases in the country (after New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California); the third most deaths; and the fifth most deaths per capita. As of April 7, African-Americans, though they make up 14 percent of Michigan’s population, accounted for a third of its coronavirus cases and 40 percent of its deaths. Ypsilanti is home to almost half of the coronavirus cases in Washtenaw County, though only a twentieth of its population. Carlos and Kip both know people who are suffering.

African-American businesses are also more threatened by the economic insecurity brought on by the pandemic. A 2011 survey found that a majority of businesses in Ypsilanti’s “southside,” the neighborhood just south and west of Black Stone, which has an 80 percent African-American population and a higher concentration of poverty than the county as a whole (more than half, in its poorest district), were even then under ten years old. (Says Carlos: “A lot of businesses here close their doors: the goal is to stay open. We’re tipping pennies out of our pocket every day.”) Business owners told the survey that what would help them most would be more job opportunities in the area, which had drained half of its population since peaking in 1970 and losing a Ford plant and a GM plant that had once been the WWII-era Willow Run bomber factory. The neighborhood had no grocery store of its own; among the amenities those surveyed most requested were activities for children and teens and African-American cultural programs.

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Black Stone, founded in 2013 and energetically filling both of these needs, is too small to be eligible for the federal stimulus legislation’s Paycheck Protection Program. They don’t have employees and have never taken out a loan (a significant obstacle for many businesses). African-American book professionals were worried enough about the threat to African-American bookselling to gather for a conference call as soon as March 20 to address the pandemic’s threat to the recent and tentative uptick in African-American-owned book businesses.

But Carlos and Kip were not dwelling on the challenges. Carlos told me, you’re not going to be successful unless you try. As manager of the digital side of the business, he scrambled to get online ordering set up the week the Michigan governor declared a state of emergency and he had to close up the store.

Like many independent booksellers he created a GoFundMe page and immediately began to find ways to reach his customers virtually. (“We love what we do here,” he told them. “We miss our customers, and we miss each other. Our goal is to weather this setback, and stay in business, and reopen our doors to our lovely customers & community very soon.”) Carlos noted that the celebrated Literati Bookstore down the road in Ann Arbor managed to raise $100,000 in two days. Black Stone patrons are less likely to have that kind of money at their disposal. But the local Black Men Read program, pairing readers with Washtenaw County schoolchildren, with which Black Stone has partnered, recently joined with Black Stone to distribute 75 bags of books and activities to families through Ypsilanti Community Schools with support from the United Way and other donors.

In addition to the University of Michigan off in Ann Arbor, Black Stone has Eastern Michigan University right across the street, once the first normal school in the western states, bringing a stream of professors and students through their doors. But they also serve plenty of neighbors, busy people with a lot on their minds, who might not have seen the point of a bookstore before they had one. “We have to make it happen,” says Carlos.

We began linking to Black Stone on April 23 and its new website began creeping up in Google searches. On May 9 and 10 we had an Instagram live mini-author festival with our reviewers Emily Bernard (who kindly mentioned her work with us in this other check-in with the Beinecke Library), Calvin Baker (who gave us a peek into his new book, coming this summer), Andre Bernard (author of the recent Some of Us Are Very Hungry Now), and Allen Callahan, who drew out in Carlos, who brought to each conversation a saucy set of flash-questions, an unexpected enthusiasm for Biblical philology. Instagram Live, as the Subway Book Review’s founder Uli Beutter Cohen has noted, is, among all the new virtual encounters, a particularly intimate and spontaneous one. Us observers felt like we were along for the ride on a mobile conversation between new friends.

The conversations drew out in different ways how the current crisis intensifies existing economic and existential threats to African American culture, amidst the threats to culture generally. USA Today that week documented the efforts of other black-owned booksellers to rally their readership and stay afloat. “The pandemic exacerbated the plight of the few remaining black bookstores across the country,” said Blanche Richardson, whose parents founded Marcus Books in Oakland 60 years ago.

Marcus Books has been buoyed by the engagement of scholar Folasade Adesanya, rapper and actor Daveed Diggs, and poet Robin Coste Lewis, raising money to bolster their online presence and maintain their staff. The outpouring of support, Richardson says, is a testament to “the community’s understanding of the vital and essential need for independent and black bookstores … Older and new black bookstores alike still face the challenge of a lack of consciousness about the consequences of not having a black bookstore in your community, not having your own source of knowledge about yourself available,” she says. “If we are not writing our own story, someone else will.” Noelle Santos, who, as we reported last year, founded the Bronx’s only bookstore, The Lit Bar, when Barnes & Noble closed its one branch there, told Esquire that she has applied for a raft of funding to keep The Lit Bar in business, but “the process was humiliating after some time. I pride myself on my independence and my perseverance, and on the fact that I’ve been able to create this business from nothing when no one would help me … It’s becoming a full-time job to play the oppression Olympics” filling out applications for emergency funding.

“We want to create a community,” Carlos told the News. “You can go in there and meet people with powerful minds.”

Then, a few weeks into our partnership, came the death of George Floyd and the upswelling of unrest around the country but especially in Minneapolis, one state over from Black Stone. Minneapolis, had, as it happens, been the site of something of a literary flowering in recent years. It is home to three of the country’s most celebrated small publishers: Graywolf PressCoffee House Press, and Milkweed Editions. Milkweed is also an independent bookstore, one of many in the Twin Cities, including two founded by distinguished literary figures: novelist Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark Books and Next Chapter, which was formerly Garrison Keillor’s Common Good (Keillor sold it last year to Nicholas Ballas).

The guild rallied as its members found themselves on the front lines of the protest. Uncle Edgar’s Mystery Bookstore and Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore (said to be the oldest independent science fiction and fantasy bookstore in the countryburned to the ground on Friday night (owner Don Blyly described the events on their website and Twitter saw an outpouring of tributes). Magers and Quinn was one of the few stores on its block that were not broken into on Wednesday night. The stock of the St. Paul antiquarian bookstore Midway Books was damaged, possibly irretrievably, by smoke from a burning neighboring liquor store. The Dreamhaven comics bookstore was broken into on Tuesday: owners welcomed volunteers to help them clean up.

And then there was Moon Palace, less than a block from the Third Precinct building that was evacuated and burned down on Thursday. Co-owner Angela Schwesnedl posted a photo of its boarded-up facade Saturday morning, writing, “This is hard.” The owners had prevented the police from using their parking lot as a staging area (Publishers Weekly received a video clip showing “a standoff with a line of police officers in the street in front of the bookstore blocking protesters”) and given out food from its adjoining café to demonstrators and emblazoned the storefront with slogans supporting their cause. Although they urged supporters on Twitter not to “put yourself at risk to protect the store,” they told Publishers Weekly protesters were imploring other protesters “not to burn down the bookstore, not to burn down the library” nearby. (The bus stop in front of the library was graffitied with the words “Fund libraries, not cops.”)

Red Balloon, across the river in St. Paul, sent tweets of solidarity, encouraging customers to buy books from Moon Palace and applauding them for “working hard to keep the community fed and safe.” While lamenting the destruction, Moon Palace, Red Balloon, Graywolf, Milkweed, and Coffee House voiced solidarity with the protestors and encouraged followers to support organizations like the Minnesota Freedom FundBlack Visions MNReclaim the Block, and GoFundMes (here and here) for the family of George Floyd, as well as local food pantries (here and here, e. g.)

Ypsilanti had been seeing separate protests responding to an incident of police violence there, and I phoned Carlos to see how he was doing. He told me that their operations had not been affected, and we talked a bit about the conflicting narratives running through protesting cities—is destruction the only recourse when nonviolent resistance is ignored, or is it the work of bad actors, whether local or imported, and whether perhaps his work running an African-American bookstore, if less headline-making, has something to offer the prospects for long-term change.

Carlos had posted on Black Stone’s social media that “The top five selling books on blackstonebookstore.com the last few days have been: How to be an AntiracistWhite FragilityMe and White SupremacySo You Want to Talk About Race; and The New Jim Crow.” I was reminded how one of our previous partners, Left Bank Books in St. Louis, had developed a “Ferguson Reads” monthly reading group in the wake of demonstrations following the killing of Michael Brown in 2014, to “give the community a place to come together to read and discuss literary and historical works on race and the Civil Rights Movement.” Red Ballon has also posted a “be anti-racist” reading list for children and tweeted a call to patronize black-owned bookstores as a response to the crisis. As Carlos wrote on Facebook, “This bestseller list is a sign of hope for humanity, and at the same time, not nearly enough. This was a painful week for our country…” (Head here for an updated list of black-owned bookstores.)

Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s have taken note of the ethnic diversity of the demonstrations that have swept the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s death. The Minneapolis literary flowering may find itself largely on the prosperous side of the Minnesotan success story that critics say has not extended to its black citizens (though Erdrich’s bookstore is notably focused on native culture). But looking at the fellowship that Carlos’s bookstore alongside these Twin Cities book communities represents, the power of the book as vehicle for shared exploration, growth, and reconciliation seems manifest.

On Friday Sarah McNally, owner of the constellation of New York City bookstores McNally Jackson, published an op-ed in The New York Times saying that high rents were the most likely thing to kill off her bookstores. We’ve argued in Book Post that lower costs around the country have created the opportunity for more adventurous book enterprises, benefitting both their local and the larger reading culture in ways we are seeing this weekend in Minneapolis and Ypsilanti. These enterprises are now facing an existential economic threat. The story of Minneapolis bookstores paints in dramatic colors the urgency of embracing our responsibility to sustaining vital reading cultures.

That a store can make a more-than-economic contribution to civic life is part of this story. There were reports that so many people showed up to clean up Minneapolis’s Lake Street retail district that there was not enough for them to do.

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This article originally appeared as three separate posts in Book Post. Here, here, and here.

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