Mahogany Browne is a poet, writer, organizer and educator. Recently, she became the first-ever poet-in-residence at the Lincoln Center in…
How Black bookstore owners see the flood of requests for 'anti-racist' reading
When Trayvon Martin's killer was acquitted nearly seven years ago, Khamani Harrison turned to books. She wanted to better understand how the justice system could have allowed George Zimmerman, a non-Black man, to walk free after fatally shooting a Black teenager. Harrison said she sought insight specifically from Black-owned bookstores "because I felt like they had answers that somehow I wasn't getting in the mainstream."
In recent weeks, as national protests have expressed agony and urgency over police killings of Black Americans, Black bookstore proprietors say they have seen titles on race and racism flying off their shelves — the same books they have been carrying for years. For them, "anti-racist" reading is nothing new.
A few years back at Zahra's Books and Things in Inglewood, California, Harrison picked up Anthony Browder's book "Survival Strategies for Africans in America," which has helped her cope with the trauma of seeing more instances of violence against Black Americans play out on television in the years since Martin's death.
"That book captured me because I never considered myself an African in America," Harrison said of Browder's book, which details 13 steps deemed necessary for people of African descent to maintain a sense of freedom and stability within American society. "To have a strategy, that's what I wanted. Whatever tools that were going to come from that book, they were geared toward me as an African in America."
Harrison was inspired to open her own bookstore, selling titles about the Black experience and guided by the mission of "Divine liberation one page at a time." Operating primarily online and in pop-ups around Hartford, Connecticut, The Key Bookstore has been curating reading lists with a Black audience in mind since 2018.
But after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into George Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes — an encounter that led to Floyd's death — Harrison started seeing an immediate uptick in requests of people seeking anti-racist literature. These are books that largely focus on the power structures, upheld by white Americans, that perpetuate racism and disadvantage people of color. Many anti-racist reading lists have also included books by Black authors who didn't originally conceive of their works as guides for non-Black people to be better allies against systemic discrimination.
"We generally sell books to enlighten our own community, the Black community," Harrison said. "And now having a new influx of literally a white audience seeking information for their role in this — we've had to curate a whole new list of books."
As more people have sought out different resources and perspectives, books like Ijeoma Oluo's 2018 "So You Want to Talk About Race" and Ibram X. Kendi's 2019 "How to Be an Antiracist" debuted on The New York Times' Top 10 Bestseller list. One industry tracker reported that from the week of May 17 to the week of May 23, sales for political science civil rights titles jumped by 330 percent and sales of books about discrimination increased by 245 percent.
Harrison created a "White Ally Book List" in response to these requests, selecting titles such as Robin DiAngelo's "White Fragility" and Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow," about mass incarceration in the U.S.
As Harrison worked to fill orders the week of June 8, she said she hoped new — likely white — customers would be patient with her small business in the coming weeks: "We waited 400-plus years for you to ask for this information."
Some Black bookstore owners who spoke with the PBS NewsHour said they are heartened to see a surge of new customers — many of whom are white — coming to them in search of books, particularly when so many independent businesses have struggled to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, buying a book about racism won't fix racism, these bookstore owners stress. Yet they remain cautiously hopeful that more non-Black readers will commit themselves to supporting Black-owned businesses and continue reading about and confronting systemic racism in the U.S.
Stores see pandemic struggles turn into a surge
For many Black-owned bookstores, March was a challenging month. When states began to shut down large portions of the economy due to the coronavirus pandemic, brick-and-mortar retailers around the country had to temporarily close their doors and move sales online.
Several of the booksellers who spoke with the NewsHour said they had struggled to obtain federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to help them keep employees on payroll — a tiny sample of what minority-owned businesses across the U.S. say they have experienced over the past few months. A report by the Center for Responsible Lending found that structural inequities built into the PPP program made it difficult for minority-owned small businesses to qualify for or receive these forgivable federal loans. Under the law, Congress had intended private lenders to prioritize giving loans to minority and female-owned businesses; the Small Business Administration's watchdog faulted the bureau in May for failing to direct lenders to do so.
Hannah Oliver Depp, who owns Loyalty Bookstores in the D.C. metro region, said she had been working by herself about 20 hours a day to keep her store afloat since the pandemic began, and had spent months trying to solve a clerical error with her business' PPP application, which she did eventually receive. It was only due to a sudden surge of customer interest following the protests, she said, that she could consider having her employees resume work.
"I've been able to bring my staff back, and we're seeing hundreds of orders from people. It's incredible to see this kind of 'reparations by selling,'" Depp said of the groundswell of support for Black-owned businesses like hers. She started an online, anti-racist book club to create a space for readers to discuss books like Oluo's "So you Want to Talk About Race."
"Anything with the word 'race' or 'anti-racist' in the title has been sold out," said Janifer Wilson of Sister's Uptown in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. She said while her bookstore lost nearly all of its revenue from in-store purchases during the COVID-19 lockdown, sales "went from zero back up to 110 percent" following protests in New York and around the country — they sold at least 600 to 700 books over just three days at the start of June.
"The irony is some of the same books that are now almost impossible to get your hands on were the ones that sat on our shelves for so long," said Jeannine Cook, whose Philadelphia store, Harriett's, had only been open for six weeks before it had to close its doors due to COVID-19 and move its sales online. She noted that DiAngelo's "White Fragility" and Layla F. Saad's "Me and White Supremacy" had both gained considerable interest from customers over the past few weeks, and her store had to shut down its online sales for a few days just to keep up with the demand. An anonymous donor paid for 100 copies of Kate Clifford Larson's biography of Harriet Tubman, as well as "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which Cook and her staff distributed at Philadelphia protests at the end of May. They have given out 500 more copies of other books since.
Joshua Clark Davis, a historian with the University of Baltimore, said he thinks these newer customers may see "the conscious act of purchasing a Black-authored book from a Black-owned store" as a way to do their part, however small, in not only reading about racism, but also supporting minority-owned businesses economically.
But while the sudden support during a historic economic recession is welcome, it's still born out of tragedy. Nia Damali, the owner of Medu Bookstore in Atlanta, saw sales boom following George Floyd's death. To her, the tradeoff isn't worth it.
Damali said it's wonderful that more people have decided to join their bookstore's Facebook or Instagram page, "but I want to see the impact today, tomorrow and continuously because we're losing too many lives for this moment."
What reading can't do
Black bookstore owners are well aware of the limitations of anti-racist reading, but remain cautiously hopeful that new customers will take the time to learn and absorb information from the titles currently selling out from their stores.
"There is no book that's going to solve racism, right? There's no book that going to undo racism," said Cook, who runs Harriett's, adding that while some customers will just see anti-racist reading as a trend, she wants to cater to those who "are absolutely committed to seeing change happen" in the long run.
"You have to do the work, and that requires you to really get in and study," Cook continued. "Yes, I can give you suggestions all day, but it really is up to a person to commit to this."
Hannah Oliver Depp said that books like Audre Lorde's "Sister Outsider" or Adrienne Maree Brown's "Pleasure Activism" may have piqued the interest of a wider base of customers recently because publishers have picked up on the fact that there is interest outside of the Black community.
"They are being marketed, broadly, as things that everyone should read and not … like, 'Oh, this is a Black book for Black people,'" Depp said, who noted that the publishing industry has a long history of paying writers of color less, and perpetuating the idea that their works must necessarily focus on pain or trauma.
Writer Tre Johnson recently wrote a piece criticizing the tendency of white Americans to respond to tragic events within the Black community by reading, and then discussing Black pain in an abstract way. "Book clubs," he wrote, "are comfortable gatherings of friends who are unlikely to nudge one another to the places of discomfort that these books, at their best, demand."
The sudden urge among non-Black readers to share anti-racist reading could be seen as what activists call "performative allyship" — a symbolic gesture to soothe a guilty conscience rather than effect real change.
Some bookstore owners who have struggled to keep up with the sudden demand for certain titles have also felt a negative backlash. Frugal Bookstore, a Black-owned business in Boston, recently posted that it had received 20,000 orders since May 30, 75 percent of which were for the same 10 books that had run out across the country and needed to be reprinted. The management said the massive influx made it impossible to process all of the orders on time, and that they had drawn "disheartening emails" from disgruntled customers in the process.
The urgency to get a hold of these books "is amazing, but the urgency also belies a still faulty understanding that this is something that can be fixed very quickly," said Loyalty Bookstores' Hannah Depp. "It's highly dependent on individual action. I'm very hopeful — but think people need to recognize this is a long-term issue."
Janifer Wilson, who has seen her fair share of marches and protests, is heartened to see so many young people engaged in recent calls for racial equity, and hopeful that the interest is more sustained this time around.
"We're still enslaved," said Wilson. "We still have the rules, the disciplines and doctrines that are set before us that still don't allow us to be free." But she still hopes change is possible, "and it won't be about profit."