Having grown from a small book kiosk to six bookstores in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Karibu Books, based in Prince George County’s Temple Hills, had become the largest chain of African American bookstores in the country. But now, after 15 years in business, the chain is closing its doors. Since December 2006, three stores have already closed down. The remaining three will close Feb.10. In a letter posted on the company’s Website, Karibu CEO Simba Sana, who co-founded the company in 1993, announced the end of Karibu.
Surprisingly, the company had recently announced plans to expand to other cities such as Philadelphia, but the company faced financial troubles and the possible termination of a partnership between the store’s co-founders, Sana and COO Brother Yao Glover.
While Karibu’s going out of business may be more complicated than just lacking sales, many other black-owned bookstores find themselves still struggling to stay afloat. According to James Fugate, co-owner of the 20-year-old black bookstore Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, he too has considered closing. Eso Won has been facing bankruptcy and is on credit hold with all publishers.
“Over the last five years we’ve seen sales dropping each year,” says Fugate. “Black bookstores don’t have the capital and advertising dollars to compete with the mega chains, much the same as the independent stores, but independent stores seem to have better awareness amongst their customers of the value of those stores.” Fugate expects Eso Won to regain its credit status in about a year. Currently, the store is on a cash-basis with many of the publishers they deal with.
“Blacks are reading more now than ever, just buying less from black stores,” notes Fugate. In fact, black book buying has fluctuated over the years. African Americans spent $326 million on books in 2003, according to Target Market News, which tracks African American spending patterns. This is compared to $356 million in 2000 and $303 million in 2002.
“The Internet and the chains have really hurt us,” explains Fugate. According to Marva Allen, co-owner and managing partner of New York City’s Hue-Man Bookstore & CafÃ©, black bookstores have to find new ways to compete with technology. Hue-Man, for example, offers e-books so people can read their Hue-Man book purchases on iPods or home computers.
“It’s sad when any bookstore closes, and there are special circumstances for Karibu as opposed to the pressures of being an independent bookstore,” says Allen, who feels that the trend of consumers going to mega-chains may soon be changing. “I think people are looking to see a bookstore as part of a community. It’s more than a book. People are investing in local bookstores,” she says. “But the key is also to have strong community outreach. You have to meet the needs of the community.”