Harlem Haven

Marva Allen says if she had a dime for every time she heard customers say how proud they are of the Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe in Harlem, she’d be a rich woman. That kind of customer support — complemented by a steady stream of interest from African American authors and celebrities — has made the company what it is today: a 16-employee, $1.2 million entity started three years ago by a trio of partners with $350,000 to invest and a dream.

Based in the heart of Harlem, New York, about 90% of the 4,000-square-foot bookstore’s inventory comprises works by or about African Americans, with a dose of New York Times bestsellers and titles by authors from the Caribbean and African Diaspora. The café allows customers to mingle, read, and enjoy a sandwich and a coffee.

Hue-Man came to life in August 2002, when Rita Ewing, 39, Celeste Johnson, 35, and Clara Villarosa decided to open a bookstore dedicated to African American authors. Ewing, ex-wife of former New York Knick Patrick Ewing, established a partnership with Johnson, wife of NBA star Larry Johnson. Armed with an M.B.A. and 22 years of experience running a computer firm, Allen became a full partner in 2004 and today handles Hue-Man’s day-to-day operations. In 2004, the company brought in $1.2 million in revenues, and expects the same amount for 2005.

Little did they know at the time that they were building what would become one of the largest African American bookstores in the country, in one of the largest African American communities nationwide. At the grand opening on Aug. 1, 2002, rapper Jay-Z, singer Stevie Wonder, and actor Wesley Snipes attended, with poet Maya Angelou providing a special dedication.

Nothing could prepare the partners for the reception they would get in June 2004, when former President Bill Clinton signed 2,000 copies of his autobiography My Life (Random House; $35) at Hue-Man. “We were in every national magazine from Germany to Sweden to Prague,” says Allen, 51, managing partner. “That took the Hue-Man brand to new places and kept it there for a year.”

These days, the firm’s event calendar is nearly always filled with authors who know that their events will attract anywhere from 25 to 2,500 guests.

On the calendar recently was supermodel Iman, who in October launched her book The Beauty of Color (Penguin Putnam; $29.95) with a signing at Hue-Man. The event was part of a daylong Beauty of Color Celebration Day proclaimed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Things haven’t always run so smoothly at Hue-Man, where some early partnership issues manifested themselves into the departure of Clara Villarosa in 2003, and the addition of Allen and a fourth partner, Melvin Van Peebles, the following year. Van Peebles, an accomplished actor, writer, director, and composer, says he got involved with Hue-Man because education and knowledge are so vital in today’s society. “There are all kinds of knowledge hidden in books,” he says. “That’s why the bookstore made sense to me. The partners are marvelous people who are trying