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Black-owned Bookstores Return As Social And Cultural Spaces

Christopher E. Cager

Like many small businesses, Black-owned bookstores were forced to close when the pandemic began earlier this year. But their closures represented more than the loss of a retail outlet. Shuttered bookstores took away a social and cultural space that is returning, in part, because of a social justice movement.

Everyone’s Place African Cultural Center is more than a bookstore. The shop on North Avenue near the Penn North Metro stop also sells everything from skincare products to incense.

Olakekan Kamau-Nataki, who works at Everyone’s Place, said when the store was forced to close in March, they started a curbside pickup service.

The store’s staff members did their best to help people find the right products over the phone. People were particularly interested in buying African fabric to make masks.

“We did our best to try and take some photos and we would email people the photos, they would choose their fabrics,” Kamau-Nataki said. “So it was a lot more trying to figure out the logistics of things and each day was different.”

But some things can’t be brought to the curb. In the past Everyone’s Place held book signings and headwrap classes.

“We do plan on kind of trying to bring that back in the next couple years or so and kind of expanding what kind of classes,” Kamau-Nataki said.

Just a few miles away on Liberty Avenue, Wisdom Book Center faced the same problem. In pre-pandemic times the store’s owner, Tehuti Imhotep, would often play chess with young people in the store.

Imhotep was unavailable for an interview for medical reasons, but his friend Haki Ammi said Wisdom Center was an intellectual oasis.

“Many small publishers are not able to get their books into the main, major outlets,” Ammi said. “So this is where people go to find out unique perspectives on the African American and African experience.”

When the pandemic hit, Wisdom Center closed. No more chess games, no more unique perspectives on the African American and African experiences.

Then, this summer, two things changed. Many businesses were allowed to re-open--with some restrictions--and the nation was rocked by protests over racism and police brutality.

At the same time, the internet filled with lists of anti-racist literature and Black bookstores to buy from.

Ammi said Wisdom Center and Imhotep got an influx of email requests.

“For the most part, he was a one-man operation,” Ammi said. “So it wasn’t like he was able to handle, you know, all the increases in demand.”

And the books on those online lists were not necessarily books Black-owned stores keep in stock. Kamau-Nataki says Everyone’s Place also got a lot of requests after ending up on online lists.

“We had just a couple of books. Like we might have four or five copies of that, some of these books that would sell per year,” Kamau-Nataki said. “So we weren’t prepared for that, the publishers weren’t prepared for that.”

When the publishers caught up, so did the store.

Many of the customers who wanted to buy anti-racist literature were new to Everyone’s Place. Kamau-Nataki said some of them stuck around.

“They’re kind of, I think, broadening the topics that they’re interested in and exploring a lot of the other sections that we have as well,” Kamau-Nataki. “Or they’re going beyond just the books that you would find on most of the lists.”

And now that customers can be physically in the store together, the cultural and social aspects are returning.

Kamau-Nataki said customers are educating each other.

“And it might be a new customer, who’s new their first time there and they’re interested in books,” Kamau-Nataki said. “So we’ll recommend things to them and then sometimes other customers when they hear us recommending stuff they’re like, ‘yeah, that’s a good one, but recently I read this.’”

Things aren’t back to normal yet but new customers are finding their local Black-owned bookstores and sticking around for conversation and camaraderie.