Buy the Book

Black bookstores may be the way of the dinosaur. Here's what retailers must do to survive and thrive.

On a warm Sunday afternoon in mid-August, Sherry McGee stood near the front of her store, the Apple Book Center in Detroit, surveying the crowd of 50 or so customers. They had gathered to hear author Colin Channer read from his first novel, Waiting in Vain, a culturally rich love story that had debuted on the Blackboard best-sellers list at No. 1.

“What would you like me to read?” Channer eagerly asked his mostly female audience. “All of it,” shouted several readers, giving both author and bookstore the kind of enthusiastic endorsement that advertising could never provide.

Any other day, McGee and her staff of 13 full- and part-timers would be hawking the more than 25,000 literary titles inside the spacious, brightly lit store to customers directly. But the former marketing and management professional understands that no one can sell a book like its author, and understanding what makes books sell is the skill that has fueled this black-owned bookstore’s success.

Two years ago, in the midst of independent retailers decrying the loss of their customers to super bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders, McGee not only opened Apple, but began a thriving business. Housed in a 3,500 sq.-ft. space, replete with reading couches and posters promoting new releases, her store generated more than $1 million in gross sales last year. Although she admits that independent booksellers are in a fight for their livelihood against encroaching chain stores, McGee plans to open a second store in downtown Detroit by early spring.

“Chains have become a big factor,” says McGee. “Here are black bookstores, better able to focus on black readers, but harder pressed because we’re competing against 70,000-sq.-ft. stores with tons of inventory and better discounts.”

The chain stores’ decision to enter the African American market is having more than a nominal effect on black-owned stores. “Many black bookstores have closed,” says Max Rodriguez, publisher of the Quarterly Black Review of Books (QBR). “I can’t say exactly how many, but I know that when we go to deliver QBR to bookstores, we’ve been getting back notes saying the stores no longer exist. That’s been happening rapidly over the last two years,” he adds.

Most of the challenges facing black-owned bookstores are not unique. “I’ve been telling [black] stores, ‘you’ve been thinking of the loss of sales as a personal problem, but it’s a problem with independent bookstores across the board,’” says Manie Barron, a specialist in African American trade sales and marketing for Random House in New York City. The issue of competition against the chains is simply a much newer one for black merchants, who find their earnings shrinking or remaining flat while annual book purchases by black readers have increased some $115 million since 1990.

There are some strategies that the 400-500 black-owned book retailers-and those African Americans who may want to open a bookstore-can employ, however, to stave off the competition of large retailers and grow their customer base. These tactics range from identifying alternative financing to using technology to help market

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