Head to a mainstream bookstore and you’ll usually on see texts by well-known Black authors like Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, and Octavia Butler promoted during Black history month — or when a book blows up because Oprah recommended it.
Head to an independent Black-owned bookstore and you’ll definitely find those same authors on the shelves. But instead of a token display table in February, these spaces are wall-to-wall Black books, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re the go-to spots for purchasing work by Black internationally celebrated authors as well as the writers white people are less familiar with — folks like Eric Jerome Dickey, Sister Soulja, Jawanza Kunjufu, Denene Millner, and Kiara Imani. Fiction, nonfiction, Black perspectives on mental health and healing trauma, or gender inequality, and the effects of systemic racism — you want it, they’ve got it, or they’ll order it for you.
But along with being spaces where Blackness is centered and literary voices are welcomed and valued, the 127 Black-owned independent bookstores across the United States are about more than the latest bestseller. They’re vital beacons of liberation and hope — places where we discover ourselves, gain a greater appreciation for our culture, and learn.
“It’s more costly to deal with a society being uneducated than educated,” says Malik Muhammad, the co-founder and owner of Malik Books in Los Angeles.
“We have to be very selective in what is being educated because — and this is why critical race theory exists — two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time. It’s either this or it’s that. We live in a society where white is ‘beautiful’ and is Back is ‘evil.’ We have to change that narrative. It’s our responsibility to write our history, write our narrative, and to teach and cultivate our youth to love themselves and be true to themselves.”
Indeed, since opening the doors to Malik Books in 1990, Muhammad says he remains dedicated to being a Black bookstore owner despite the challenges because he believes Black people deserve access to “having a knowledge of self.”
A Tradition of Literary Liberation
The first Black bookstore was founded in 1834 by abolitionist and writer David Ruggles, who converted his New York City grocery shop into a space where Black folk could gather to discuss fights against colonization and movements for equal rights.
Abolitionist and feminist publications written by or featuring Black voices were available in the shop. Ruggles’ bookstore was even used as a temporary haven for Frederick Douglass.
Douglass wrote of Ruggles, who became his mentor, that “He was a whole-souled man, fully imbued with a love of his afflicted and hunted people, and took pleasure in being to men as … eyes to the blind and legs to the lame.” The bookstore served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and as a gathering place for anti-slavery activists until it was burned down in September 1835 by a white mob.
After Emancipation, attacks on independent Black bookstores didn’t end.
Oakland-based Marcus Books, the nation’s oldest independent Black bookstore opened its doors in 1960. It gets its name from Marcus Garvey, founder of the Black Nationalist Movement. And it’s well-documented that the federal government deliberately targeted Black bookstores with the intent to diminish their impact.
In 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ordered the FBI to identify and study Black bookstores because he feared their ability to progress the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
“Determine the identities of the owners; whether it is a front for any group or foreign interest; whether individuals affiliated with the store engage in extremist activities; the number, type, and source of books and material on sale; the store’s financial condition; its clientele; and whether it is used as a headquarters or meeting place,” Hoover demanded.
Blanche Richardson, whose parents Julian and Ray Richardson founded Marcus Books, told PBS Newshour that her mom and dad “would really scour the country looking for books about Black people. At that time, very few Black people were being published. My parents saw the need for Black people to have a source of information about themselves.”
Blanche Richardson, who runs the bookstore now, said the bookstore was “a meeting place for many organizations, but also a place that appreciated you, welcomed you, did not follow you around the store with mirrors on the walls, you know?”
Why Do We Need to Support Black Bookstores Right Now?
Black authors are often, and deliberately, kept out of mainstream bookstores, which means its still difficult to find Black-centered literature. Terri Hamm, the founder of Kindred Stories in Houston, recently told the New York Times that she opened the bookstore because there was nowhere else selling books for her 14-year-old daughter.
“It dawned on me that she didn’t have a space in Houston to discover and explore all the amazing works in the market that are written by Black voices,” Hamm said. “There wasn’t a space curated with her in mind.”
Why are these spaces rare?
As James Baldwin said, “The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.” And as we’ve seen in the response to “The 1619 Project” by journalist Nikole Hannah Jones, white institutions find truth from Black folk to be threatening to the makeshift ‘truths’ they teach and promote.
Over the years, Muhammad has watched thousands of people’s lives change because they discovered an inspiring book in his store. He believes books have the power to influence thought and action, and that being able to read the right books can set you on a path toward fulfillment and success.
“Everyone has a shelf in their mind of the collection of books that they have read,” Muhammad says, “and those books influence your thoughts and the decisions that you’ve made. We like to curate and select books that are positive and uplifting, but in the process, we address real issues.”
In addition to what’s on shelves, the owners and staff of independent Black bookstores work tirelessly to come up with new ways to educate and engage their communities.
Muhammad says some of the current initiatives at Malik Books include providing college prospects with annual scholarships, and they’ve started a podcast, “Malik’s Bookshelf,” which strives to “[bring] a world together with book, culture, and community.”
In 2021, the store also launched a “Book Mobile” as a way to connect Black elementary and middle school students across Los Angeles with Black-centered literature and media in the classroom.
“We always have to give back and try to find ways to do more for our community,” Muhammad explains.
Muhammad says creating personal relationships with Black activists, artists, and writers so that he can amplify their work and ideas is one of his favorite things about owning a Black bookstore.
“What’s the saying? Work smarter, not harder,” Muhammad says. “Partnerships create more togetherness. No man or woman lives on an island alone.
We have to find collaborations and partnerships in order to expand, elevate, and evolve both vertically and horizontally,” he says. “We have to unite our resources, our intellect, and our collective thought.”
Muhammadoften collaborates with other independent Black bookstores and he’s part of the Black Bookstore Collective, an organization which meets once a month to connect independent Black bookstores nationally.
“We collectively help each other rather than fight against each other. We support each other because we have mutual respect for each other,” Muhammad says.
Supporting Black bookstores equals supporting our Black artists, leaders, and thinkers. Shopping at a local Black bookstore (or ordering from their website), attending their events, and sharing the work of your favorite Black authors with family and friends is part of Black liberation.
“We’re not pushing anybody off the shelf, we are only adding our voice to the conversation,” Muhammad says. “We are part of the success of America, and our voice matters. If we don’t exhaust our voices, then our voices won’t be heard.”