The Joy Of Reading

Bronx bookseller resolves to spread the love of words in the black community

It’s tough taking the entrepreneurial plunge when those around you predict you’ll sink and drown. But Lana Ho-Shing, sole owner and operator of Briscoe-Brown Books–the only major bookstore in the Wakefield area of the Bronx, New York-dived in anyway. Now, she is determined to nurture her “oasis for the mind” into a watering hole that extends beyond the borough’s borders.

Ho-Shing, 49, dreamed of owning a bookstore as a teenager. But her idea took on more urgency early in 1995, after she had been downsized twice in three years. “When I lost the second job,” she recalls, “I promised myself it would never happen again.” Two months into a feasibility study for a bookstore in her neighborhood, she began to catch heat from friends.

“I was told I would be making a big mistake,” says Ho-Shing, a widow and mother of a 14-year-old son, Matthew. “They thought my idea was too risky.” Critics said her predominantly black community wasn’t interested in books. But Ho-Shing, an avid reader, knew others also disliked traveling long distances to buy reading material. Once a local bookstore became available, her neighbors would read more, she reasoned.

Ho-Shing, a former owner of a graphic arts company in her native Jamaica, completed her research and business plan in eight months. She believed her marketing background and previous business experience would help her clear the funding hurdle that hinders many entrepreneurs. She was wrong. “I couldn’t even get an appointment with the loan officers because I was looking for startup capital. The banks were funding only established businesses.”

Undaunted, she looked into her own purse. She drained her life savings, about $60,000, and added another $40,000 in liquidated assets. A few months later, in December 1995, the bookstore opened its doors.

Named after Ho-Shing’s maternal grandparents, Briscoe-Brown offers a multicultural mix of books in a variety of categories, with roughly a third of total sales coming from special orders and children’s books. The store works with notable book distributors such as Nashville, Tennessee-based Ingram Book Co. and Baltimore-based African World Books. It also hosts a reading group and book signings, which have included those of the Rev. Al Sharpton and coauthors Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant.

Despite a good reception from the community, BriscoeBrown’s financial picture remains lukewarm. “There is only a 2% profit margin for independent bookstores,” says HoShing, an American Booksellers Association member.

Briscoe-Brown’s first-year sales totaled $38,490 in 1996 and barely rose last year to $39,477. As a result, Ho-Shing has re-prioritized her personal spending habits, and puts any additional funds back into the business. She now sticks to a rigid budget including nothing but the bare necessities–rent, food and her son’s school tuition.

This year will be a key hurdle for HoShing. She’s increasing the store’s visibility in neighboring communities by co-sponsoring events with other local businesses. “Part of my dream is to have a chain of Briscoe-Brown Books,” she says. “I’m committed to getting to the other side of the river.”

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