In 2020, a Bright Spot for Black Bookstores

Anne Branigin
·3 min read

In the midst of this year’s massive, nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Black bookstores have enjoyed a short-term boost in sales they hope to turn into a longer-term renaissance.

A new report from Bloomberg highlights this boom in business for Black bookshops, which currently make up just 8 percent of all independent bookstores. Citing numbers from the African American Literature Book Club, Bloomberg reports that there are about 120 Black-owned bookstores nationwide, many serving as important neighborhood hubs.

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The pandemic threatened to shutter many of them, with stores forced to close temporarily to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. And while operations are still limited in several parts of the country, the country’s racial reckoning in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis this past May has prompted Americans of all backgrounds to deepen their understanding of race and racial justice. This desire propelled “anti-racism readers,” books specifically explaining race and racism, like Ibrahim X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.

But many readers have chosen to go a step further—or look beyond race-related reading lists entirely—choosing Black bookstores in order to support Black entrepreneurs specifically, or Black communities holistically.

As Bloomberg notes, most of those sales have been online. And while the number of Black bookstores has crept up from a low of 54 stores nationwide in 2014, the current number of stores is still well below the 200 Black-owned bookstores that existed in the mid-1990s.

Among the roster of businesses looking to leave a lasting imprint on Black readers is The Lit Bar in the Bronx. A combination bookstore and wine bar, owner Noëlle Santos has wowed customers with her curated book lists. A “2020 Survival Kit” includes The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health by Dr. Rheeda Walker, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson, and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Relax. There are also reading lists dedicated to organizing, Nipsey Hussle, rapper and activist Noname’s book club, and “Kiddie Lit,” which features children’s books centering Black and Latinx kids.

At Semicolon in Chicago, where race-related bestsellers have accounted for half of its sales this year, owner Danielle Mullen has held book giveaways for local public school students, reports Bloomberg.

Brooklyn bookstore Cafe Con Libros, a feminist bookstore owned by Kalima Desuze, was among a group of independent bookshops that recently put on prominent storefront displays slamming mega-online retailer Amazon, which has eaten into booksellers’ profits for years. As Desuze recently told WBUR, she’s received emails from interested buyers saying her books were too expensive, despite the fact that she was offering top-selling titles at a price 10 percent lower than the suggested retail price.

The perception that her books were expensive has largely been driven by Amazon, which offers similar titles at a 40 percent discount—a rate that would not be sustainable for Cafe Con Libros, or any other brick-and-mortar bookshop for that matter.

But despite the pandemic, Cafe Con Libros has seen an increase in its monthly book subscription service, which provides avid readers with custom boxes to fill their “Feminist Bookish” needs, including subscriptions specifically for young readers. It’s just one way Desuze has learned to be creative with limitations on her actual storefront, which was designed to be a place of safety and affirmation for women and girls “across race, class, gender, age, sexuality, sexual presentation,” she told WBUR.

While she’s confident Cafe Con Libros will be able to survive the country’s current pandemic and recession, she noted that it was “bittersweet” that the support she and other Black booksellers are seeing has come at such a high cost.

“We hate the fact that our bookstores are now thriving, some of us are thriving, because Breonna Taylor and because of George Floyd,” said Desuze. “That another Black body had to be laid to rest so that folks can wake up.”