Has the chapter closed on black bookstores?

6 Nov

“Eso won” is Yoruba for “water over rocks” and symbolizes the wealth of knowledge the Eso Won Bookstore in Los Angeles provides. Lately, however, it represents the troubled waters that Eso Won and other black bookstores across the nation are facing.
Last year’s closing of Karibu Books, the nation’s largest black bookstore chain with six locations in Maryland and Virginia, was the death knell for other specialized booksellers. The untimely end of Karibu is a story being played out coast to coast as large mainstream chains and internet booksellers, like Amazon.com, take over.

Barnes and Noble and Borders have become the Starbucks of the book selling industry and the go-to place for books, leaving independent bookstores coughing in the dust. (This makes events like the Harlem Book Fair this weekend increasingly important in promoting black literature.)

Barnes and Noble didn’t use to be an issue, but now their stock of black literature has grown. On top of that, if a person can go online and pay less, that’s what they’re going to do, even if they want to support black bookstores. Another nail in the coffin.

Another problem plaguing black bookstores is the stigma associated with the type of content black novelists produce. Part of saving black bookstores is convincing readers that black writers write about topics outside of hardship and oppression and that black novels do bear relevance to their lives. If black readers want a history book, they’ll pop into a black bookstore. But if they want light summer reading, they won’t go for a heavy book dealing with racism.

While large chains do carry black literature, their selection of books give an inaccurate representation of the black experience and the genres available. In a New York Times editorial, Their Eyes were Reading Smut, a black author describes his horror after visiting a Borders bookstore and discovering the majority of their black literature inventory was erotica. It’s all stereotypical blaxploitation, and blacks have a lot more wisdom to offer about the world than what’s in the bedroom.
The closing of black bookstores poses a cultural threat, since they play an indispensible role in preserving the annals of black culture. In the race for profits, mainstream booksellers usually skip over culturally significant literature and go for less than savory titles that sell. The big chains are more interested in what’s flashy, what’s up to date, what sells the most. This often means ignoring literature reflective of the true black experience.

But black bookstores carry out a function much more essential than just selling books — they’re a meeting ground for the black communities they serve. The sense of community, which drives black bookstores and makes them so important, is what could save them in the end.

Ultimately, to preserve black culture, let’s hope that this story is one with a happy ending.


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