For decades, Black-owned bookstores have operated and survived on the margins of the publishing industry even during states of emergency like what is being experienced during the coronavirus pandemic.
Black bookshops, owned and operated by Black people, cater to the community with written works by and for Black readers. They also feature a variety of books by non-Black authors.
In recent years, these bookstores have faced tough competition from e-book sellers and e-commerce sites like Amazon.com, gentrification, and the unaffordable rent and property taxes that come with it.
But nothing has threatened their survival like covid-19, which now poses an existential threat to these Black-owned businesses.
“The pandemic exacerbated the plight of the few remaining black bookstores across the country,” Blanche Richardson, whose parents founded the country’s oldest Black-owned bookstore — Marcus Books — 60 years ago, told USA Today.
Brick-and-mortar Black bookstores continue the legacy of the space created by journalist David Ruggles, a pioneer of the burgeoning abolitionist movement in 1882.
Such Black-owned bookstores have been viewed as the keepers of Black culture and have over the years been tied to liberation movements.
In the wake of covid-19, Marc Lamont Hill, who owns Uncle Bobbie’s Coffee & Books in Philadelphia, launched a digital GoFundMe campaign to support his staff financially through the pandemic.
“We started to see fewer people come in. We had events where we expected 400 people and we got 150. It spiked very quickly. It went from alternative plans to we ‘closed closed.’ The city closed us, we didn’t have the opportunity to make a different choice although we would have closed on our own. Things escalated so quickly,” said Hill.
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Some Black booksellers are getting creative, experimenting with new ways to get more people to buy their books. These methods include launching pop-up stores and focusing on internet sales.
Others are reviving their fledging e-commerce operations and banding together with closed bookstores to put on virtual events.