Often you will hear black people say; blacks don’t support black business because we are brainwashed. We think the white man’s water is wetter and ice is colder. In actuality, black business suffers from some unique external problems and the same market forces that cause other companies to fall. This post will look at the history of black-owned bookstores and why we see so few black-owned bookstores now.
The first surge in black bookstores happened from 1965 to 1979 with the number of black bookstores increasing from twelve to around one hundred. The black book boom did not occur in a vacuum. The innovation of soft cover books in 1930 made books cheap enough for the masses. The number of printed books doubled from 1952 to 1962 and sales went up 83% from 1963 to 1971. So more books were available at a lower price to a market of black people who saw their income rise 140% from 1947 to 1960. Black bookstores were the outer manifestation of a book craze that took over the country.
One of the first black-owned bookstores was Lewis Michaux’s National Memorial African Bookstore started in 1939. The bookstore was not only a business but an epicenter of black politics in Harlem. Many other book entrepreneurs will duplicate this activist business model. The National Memorial Bookstore would host Nation of Islam rallies and book signings by Nikki Giovanni.
Michaux’s main competitor in Harlem was Una Mulzac’s Liberation Bookstore. Mulzac got into the book business while working with Leninist in British Guiana. When a new regime took over in that country, her store was closed, and she was deported back to America, the place of her birth. Her bookstore began in 1967.
Washington, DC had its own activist bookseller Charles Cobb Jr. In the wake of the Dr. King riots in 1968, Cobb opened up Drum and Spear with a grant from the Episcopal Church. Over the years, Mr. Cobb developed a mail-order catalog, publisher, and wholesale operation. Drum and Spear became the largest black bookseller by 1971.
One of the key drivers of the first black book boom was the Civil Rights Movement. As black people began to assert themselves, racist forces also worked to thwart them. FBI documents released through the freedom of information act revealed there was a concerted effort from 1968 to 1973 to monitor the activities of these bookstores. The FBI believed the owners were connected to communist and black nationalist groups committed to overthrowing the American government.
There was no store hit harder than Edward Vaughn’s Vaughn Books in Detroit. Mr. Vaughn was traveling to New Jersey when a race riot broke out in Detroit in 1967. He rushed back to his city to ensure his store was not damaged. On the way home, he is detained in two different states for questioning. Upon his return to Vaughn Books, he sees the words ” Long Live the African Revolution” graffitied on the door.
Mr. Vaughn sees the first order of business as trying to improve race relations in Detroit. He sends a telegram asking to meet with city leaders to discuss solutions. The mayor’s office gives no response. In later weeks the Detroit PD firebombed the store, but Vaughn repaired the damage. The police made a second attempt to destroy the store. They broke in clogged a pipe and turned on the faucet flooding the store. Vaughn again rebuilt and repaired the damage.
Drum and Spear was only blocks away from FBI headquarters, so they were visited frequently. Mr. Cobb was heavily involved with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi and often recognized agents. One FBI agent admitted after months of surveillance, he realized that Drum and Spear was no different than any other bookstore. The FBI officials don’t believe him and demanded the agent find proof that the store was involved in communism. The agent bought a copy of Mao’s Red Book from a white bookstore and claimed he got the book from Mr. Cobb to satisfy his superiors.
The core patrons of Drum and Spear solidified around his business after they realized the FBI was attempting to destroy him. A similar phenomenon happened with Vaughn books. However, Cointelpro put too much pressure on the black power movement to keep it viable. The movement as a whole started to falter and wain. Black Nationalist started to leave the movement because involvement necessitated people taking a high risk with little material reward. Many black activists found steady work; others worked for change in multi-cultural movements.
In addition to the black power movement losing steam in the 1970s, Black Americans began to experience an economic downturn. Three years after being proclaimed the largest black bookseller Drum and Spear closed in 1974. Black America was more interested in individual success and not attempting to work for systematic change.
In response to the general change in Black America, a new genre of black books emerged, the black romance novel. The first installment was Entwined Destinies in 1980, followed by Adam and Eva. These books pushed no political ideology. Instead, they concentrated on universal themes of love and heartbreak. The black romance genre was easy to mainstream because anyone could relate to the stories.
Terry McMillan was the largest cross-over black romance novelist. Her first book was Disappearing Acts in 1984. She marketed by catering to black bookstores. The strategy continued to her second book in 1987 Mama. However, once a mainstream audience was able to sample her work, she began to sell at white bookstores.
In the late 1980s, a new development happened in the booksellers market, the megastore. Stores such as Barnes & Nobles or Borders were able to eat up market share by having black interest sections. Also, by having a network of stores all over the country, a customer could order books that were not in stock at their local store. So the megastores offered a better product at a lower price. So small bookstores, no matter what the interest, were on the decline. In 1975, small booksellers had 60% of the market by 1997 the share had fallen to 17%.
In 1992, three black women were on the New York Times Best-sellers list. Possessing Secret by Joy Walker, Jazz by Toni Morrison, and Waiting to Exhale by Terry McMillian. This was the first time three black authors were on the best seller list at the same time. McMillian became a household name and conducted appearances all over the nation.
In 1997 durning the How Stella Got Her Groove Back tour, McMillan was set to conduct a book signing in Missouri. Antoine Coffer owner of Afrocentric Cafe protested the signing on the basis that she should do the signing at a black-owned business. Coffer called for a national boycott of McMillian unless she promised to do more book signings in black-owned bookstore. The book signing was scheduled at Library Ltd which had twenty-five times as many titles. The publisher decided to cancel the event in Missouri to avoid bad press. In reality, most of the black bookstores stayed afloat selling romance novels like Waiting to Exhale. This boycott would not only hurt one of the authors that kept Coffer’s business viable, but it would also only hurt black bookstores as a whole.
In the end, the novelty of black romance novels wained. They became just like any other romance novel in the genre. Most of the black bookstores could not compete with large sellers, and Amazon was a death nail by 2014 only 54 black-owned bookstores existed in the USA.
According to a Publisher’s Weekly article black bookstores are back on the rise. In 1999, there were 325. By 2014 there were only 54 in the USA. Fortunately, the number is back up to 108 in 2018. One of the stores Mahogany Books has a physical location in Washington DC and an online branch. Marc LaMont Hill’s bookstore is also inter-sectional offering queer studies, disability studies, and gender studies. So black bookstores are changing with the times.
Ultimately, there was a government plot to destroy black bookstores, but the larger factors were changing tastes in the Black community and market forces that hinder small niche businesses in every community. In the end, black bookstores adapted like every other industry. Once the company changes customers of all races frequent the store and make the business grow.
It is essential that we end the narrative that black business fails because black people just won’t support black people due to inherent low-self esteem. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with black people and thinking that there is something inherently wrong will prevent business owners from evaluating better business strategies. Customers are not obligated to frequent any business. In a free market, the owners should find ways to entice clients.
A link to Mahogany Books can be found HERE
From Head Shops to Whole Foods Joshua Clark Davis 2017
The Kojo Nnamdi Show 5-15-2018 “Drum and Spear: How a local bookstore educated Washington about Black Power in the 60s and 70s”.
“Author Bows Out of Book Signing” by Lorraine Kee St. Louis Post Dispatch May 20, 1997
“A New Generation of African-American owned Bookstores” by A. Green on https://www.publishersweekly.com April 06, 2018