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Anti-racist reading drove business to Black bookstores. Owners hope that's not the end of the story
Troy Johnson said he sold more books in June 2020 than he did in all of 2019.
Johnson, founder and owner of the online bookstore African American Literature Book Club (AALBC), was among a number of Black booksellers that experienced a sudden uptick in requests last year for titles focusing on race and racism in America.
Before George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, igniting racial justice protests across the country, Harriett's Bookshop owner Jeannine Cook said she probably kept seven copies of Ijeoma Oluo's "So You Want to Talk About Race" in her store, which opened last February. But as anger surrounding Floyd's death grew, Americans increasingly turned to books to try to comprehend the events that had transpired. Police violence against Americans of color was nothing new, as is evidenced by lives lost before and after Floyd, but the surge in sales of these books for shop owners was unprecedented.
By June, Cook said that books previously untouched by customers began selling out, including Oluo's work and Ibram X. Kendi's "How to Be an Antiracist," thanks to their inclusion on a number of "anti-racist" reading lists. One charter school in the area bought several cases – amounting to about 100 copies – of "So You Want to Talk About Race" for its staff to read. In Detroit, Source Booksellers processed about 3,000 orders when they participated in an "antiracist teach-in" event with Kendi and Bryan Stevenson last August.
"It was a great privilege to be able to respond to what people needed and wanted at the time of these huge crisis that began happening," said Source owner Janet Webster Jones, reflecting on the events of last year.
The merits of anti-racist reading lists have been debated – as writer and English professor Lauren Michele Jackson told NPR last year, such recommendations seemed to be geared toward a white audience, aimed at "inviting readers who admittedly don't know anything about race or think they don't know anything about race … to guide them in a conversation that they have never felt the need to be invested in before." And while a number of Black bookstore owners said they were grateful for the business, they worried that this sudden interest in certain books would only put a temporary Band-Aid on the much more pervasive problem of systemic racism in the U.S. In the year since anti-racist titles topped bestseller lists, Americans of color have continued to be killed by police, including Adam Toledo in Chicago, Daunte Wright in a suburb of Minneapolis, and Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
"There is no book that's going to solve racism, right? There's no book that's going to undo racism," Cook told the PBS NewsHour last year. "Yes, I can give you suggestions all day, but it really is up to a person to commit to this."
The demand of the last year also introduced new relationships and revenue models for Black bookstore owners – exclusive partnerships, campaigns to "Buy Black," and bulk orders from corporations and schools seeking to facilitate conversation among their employees and students about racism in America – at a time when the pandemic was also forcing many small businesses, particularly those owned by people of color, to close. But like the interest in anti-racist reading, some owners worry that consumer and community investment in these businesses may fall short of what is needed to sustain businesses struggling against long-term systemic barriers that Black entrepreneurs continue to face, such as rising rents and lack of access to capital.
"You can't use the last year as an indicator of what the future is going to be," Johnson told the NewsHour.
A boost amid a historic recession
The racial justice protests that occurred last summer came at a challenging time for independent booksellers. When COVID-19 hit the country in March, many storefronts had to shutter their doors, and bookstores were often not deemed essential businesses. More than 70 independent bookstores closed permanently in 2020, according to Dan Cullen, a senior strategy officer with the American Booksellers Association.
"I co-hosted a call with Black booksellers in March, and some of these stores were facing closure," said Troy Johnson of the AALBC. "They didn't think they were going to make it more than a couple of months."
With the looming threat of closure, a number of Black-owned bookstores – including Source Booksellers in Detroit – pivoted to online sales. Working with her daughter, Alyson Jones Turner, Jones created an online store using their already-existing inventory and began shipping out orders through the U.S. Postal Service.
Floyd's death brought new customers to bookstores like Source, which began receiving more inquiries through its burgeoning online operation. Cook, who in the spring moved the offerings from her store out to the sidewalk to respond to Philadelphia's COVID-19 restrictions, had to temporarily shut down her website because demand was so high.
"It was unprecedented," Johnson said. "I had to hire another person just to process orders … People clearly wanted to support Black booksellers." As people searched how to support Black-owned bookstores, a list he had long maintained on his website went viral, helping Johnson pull in $6,000 in Google ads. Oprah magazine soon after published a similar list on its own website.
Angela Maria Spring, the founder and owner of Duende District Bookstore, similarly saw a book list of theirs under the headline "Decolonize Your Mind," help boost sales of titles such as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's "An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States" and Mikki Kendall's "Hood Feminism."
"We're very small," said Spring, whose mobile store highlights the work of Black and brown authors, and operates out of pop-up shops located in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Washington, D.C. "So selling 100 copies of 'An African-American and Latinx History of the United States' is a huge deal."
At the same time, said Spring, who identifies as Latinx, "I don't want there to be somebody murdered in the street for me to get a bunch of orders like that." She also said she worried that her Black colleagues, many of whom have small staffs, were not all able to handle such high demands at once.
"It's wonderful that in the moment people want to support Black and brown stores, but in doing that, you add so much labor to places that don't have the infrastructure to carry that. And then it also puts you in a feast or famine mentality," Spring added.
Bookstore owners said the titles that were flying off the shelves last year have remained popular, but not at the level they were last summer. Whereas the top-selling non-fiction books on Johnson's site last May and June were "How to Be an Antiracist," "So You Want to Talk About Race," and "White Fragility," by this March and April, newer titles such as Nkechi Taifa's "Black Power, Black Lawyer" ascended to the top spots. As of June 28, 2020, nearly all 10 titles on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list were about racism; by the end of this May, readers had returned to a broader collection, including former Fox pundit Bill O'Reilly's book on organized crime and Seth Rogen's new collection of personal essays. Kristen McLean, a books industry analyst with the NPD Group, reported that sales of books about civil rights and discrimination were up more than 300 percent over the past year, but these sales decreased by about 52 percent what they had been in the second half of that period.
"There was a huge interest in particularly anti-racist literature," including titles such as Reni Eddo-Lodge's "Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race," said Katie Mitchell, who runs the online bookseller Good Books with her mother in Atlanta. "I have seen that demand taper off, honestly." She said in recent months, customers have gravitated toward books focusing on the mental health toll that racism takes, or fictional titles with elements of escapism.
"I don't think we sustained the level at which people were buying at that time," Cook said of last year's surge. "At the same time, I think what that moment did for us is it gave us returning customers, and so we have seen people who were coming back."
Cook said she and her staff at Harriett's attended several of the protests that took place over the past year, both in Minneapolis, where George Floyd died, and Louisville, where Breonna Taylor was killed. They gave out books, including "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" and a biography of Harriett Tubman. Cook recently asked her interns (she calls them "Youth Conductors") if they thought the books had any influence on the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin, who was found guilty of murdering Floyd last month. "It's hard to know," Cook said. "Books have a ripple effect, but it's not one that you necessarily see in real time." "I do believe that education has always been what pushed this humanity forward," she added.
Mitchell agreed that "books can change hearts and minds," but they can only go so far. If laws such as qualified immunity, which protects officers from actions on the job, persist, "you can read all the books until you're blue in the face and these things will still be happening," she said.
Boosted by last year's events, owners consider what needs to come next
With interest in supporting Black-owned businesses growing, some bookshop owners have secured partnerships to help bolster their bottom line.
"We were benefited by the Buy Black campaign that came along," said Jones, referring to the movement to support Black retailers that picked up momentum in this past year, receiving support from major corporations such as Target and Macy's. She added that broader campaigns encouraging customers to shop locally and buy from independent bookstores – such as the anti-Amazon "Boxed Out" initiative, in which Source participated – benefited the store as well.
As Source developed an online presence and did interviews with more news outlets – including the PBS NewsHour – the store was approached about new opportunities to collaborate with authors and publishers, often connected by the American Booksellers Association, which they said helped facilitate some of the partnerships. Jones said this month they were working on fulfilling an order of 100 books from Detroit's Museum of Contemporary Art for their Black Art Library.
Publishers have also reached out to Source to offer titles exclusively to their store before they're available at other sellers, Jones said. Actor Justin Baldoni offered a number of signed copies of his book, "Man Enough," to Source before it was available widely at other bookstores, and although Jones had not heard of him before then, she said his social media following helped amplify attention to their business. In January, the designer Virgil Abloh offered his book, "Icons," to a select group of Black-owned bookstores, including Good Books, during an early release period. "We had it maybe three months before everyone else did," Mitchell said of Abloh's book. "That gave us a huge boost as far as sales."
Jones's daughter, Alyson, said the store has continued to get requests from corporations and schools looking to place bulk orders of books they intend to use for employee training sessions. She said it's not unusual to receive a call from a company leader who says they want all their employees to read, for example, "So You Want to Talk about Race," as was the case with the school that approached Harriett's owner Jeannine Cook. "Because we would have been the logical place to look for that, we were able to capture that business," Turner said. "So that was great."
Johnson of AALBC said that while the events of the past year had been a boon for some Black-owned bookstores, they still face perennial threats from major online retailers such as Amazon, as well as rising rents and gentrification. The racial wealth gap in the U.S. persists, with the average net worth of white households outpacing Black households by nearly sevenfold, and Black entrepreneurs do not access financial capital at the rate their white counterparts do.
"The business levels that [stores] saw will not continue," Johnson said of this past year.
Jeannine Cook is currently raising money to buy a building across the street from Harriett's so that she no longer has to rent, and hopes that broader support for movements like Buy Black may attract investors for her storefront.
"We've partnered with so many people all year long who've said, we're a stan for Black business ownership," Cook said, using a term from an Eminem song now used to describe extreme fandom. "So I'm like, OK, here's an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is in terms of all of that rhetoric of how Black life matters."
Cook noted that the video platform Vimeo was donating $5,000 to her store after featuring her in a series highlighting Black-owned small businesses. "Because it's one thing to use my image, or use my likeness, or have me talk on your platform," she said. "It's a whole other thing to support the work we're doing in a real way."
Mitchell and Spring said they hope that interest in supporting Black-owned stores becomes a habit for customers, rather than a once-in-a-moment expression of solidarity.
"When people buy from Black-owned businesses, oftentimes it's seen as a niche thing or they're doing it specifically as a statement. I feel like in order for Black-owned businesses to survive beyond moments in history where it's the righteous thing to do," said Mitchell, buying Black "needs to be treated as a part of your life."
Spring, the owner of Duende District, said she'd encourage customers to think about the fact that many Black-owned bookstores do not receive the level of support they received following George Floyd's death year-round. "If you're truly supporting, you're buying from Black and brown businesses every week," she said. "You're not doing it in moments of grave crises."