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Cafe con Libros
Photograph: Ryan Cameron

Black-owned bookstores in NYC are doing record business

People are seeking more resources as the country protests in support of Black Lives Matter.

Written by
Bao Ong

“Dear White People” is a dedicated section in Noëlle Santos’s South Bronx bookstore, which the owner describes as her curated reading list for white people. When the current crisis forced her to temporarily close The Lit. Bar—the only general interest bookstore in the borough—she created an e-commerce section of the shop’s website and kept the resource alive online. 

But as protests took place across the country in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and ongoing cases of police brutality, Santos’s and other Black-owned bookstores in New York have experienced a surge in demand. They’ve never seen sales this high before. People are looking to read about race, the civil rights movement, and even lesser-known works by Black authors. 

“We started seeing a big jump in sales, basically the first day of the protests,” says Santos, who opened her business almost exactly a year ago in the Mott Haven neighborhood. “It increased probably 8,000 percent!”

The Lit. Bar
Photograph: Courtesy of The Lit. Bar

If you scroll through Amazon’s bestseller list, it’s dominated by anti-racist books as of June 4th, with the top seller being White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo—a Hunger Games book stands at the seventh slot with all other top 10 books focused on race. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Santos reports that her gross sales in the past week toppled $200,000, which she says was unheard of before. 

Despite the welcome business, however, Black bookstore owners noted they hope the demand is not a temporary trend and that their customers continue to educate themselves. The purchase of books should be a starting point (bookstore owners also pointed out that they hope people spend their money at Black-owned establishments, as well).

“Before I was a bookseller, I felt it was not my job to educate people about race. I still have to educate myself. I’m still on that journey. That’s the same standard I put white people to,” says Santos, who grew up in the Bronx. “When I opened my store, I agreed to make it my job even if it’s not my responsibility. It’s an emotional labor, and I made the choice to take it on.”

Over in Crown Heights, Kalima DeSuze, who owns Cafe con Libros, can relate. Books are on backorder because of the high demand, with nearly 500 people buying books one day. She’s hoping the support is part of a “long-term commitment to sustaining businesses of color” and not reactionary.

“This national crisis has really increased our book sales beyond our imagination,” says DeSuze. “But this is bittersweet. It came at a loss of a Black life. It’s very hard to accept this blessing...if people are willing to do the work, I’m willing to help.” 

For 12 years, Marva Allen was the co-owner of Hue-Man in Harlem. Customers would flock to the country’s largest Black-owned bookstore to find titles you couldn’t find at mainstream outlets like Barnes & Noble. She’s seen pre-orders increase in the past week, including sales for A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive, which was written by Bonita C. Stewart and Jacqueline Adams—a Google exec and former CBS News reporter, respectively—slated to come out in October.

There’s a lot of lip service and not a lot of reality,” says Allen, who is now the CEO of Wordeee, a New York-based publisher that focuses on a diverse roster of writers. “It’s a good moment in our history to understand the other side. Do your work before you approach someone.”

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