Promoting Books and Culture, Bookstore or No Bookstore

We came across two stories of independent bookstores last week — one that’s thriving in Harlem, and one that closed its doors in the Bronx. But in both situations, the owners’ commitment to spreading a love of reading is steadfast.

Located on Fredrick Douglass Boulevard between 124th and 125th Streets, Hue-Man Bookstore has managed to withstand harsh economic times and neighborhood gentrification, Dominion of New York reports. The black-owned bookstore doesn’t just sell books — it remains a source for the black history and African culture that the neighborhood was once famous for.

Selling books and African baskets. (Photo from Dominion of New York)

“Even when you walk down the street, though it’s changed drastically, there are still remnants of Harlem’s history and its culture,” says Kenneth Allen, Hue-Man’s co-owner and manager. The 10-year-old Hue-man Bookstore hopes to become one of the neighborhood’s historic landmarks. Harlem residents have seen several black-owned bookstores, such as Tree of Life and Liberation, come and go. However, Hue-man remains the largest African-American independent bookstore in the country. Allen, 31, sits by the window front in Hue-man’s small cafe. “Harlem was really one of the first black Meccas that we ever had.”

If Harlem is Mecca, then black-owned Hue-Man is the Quaran. The store specializes in any and every subject within the African Diaspora. Over 24,000 books burrow cover to cover in their specified shelves, street lit aside folklore, Eric Dyson aside Childress.  African handmade baskets and jewelery, black dolls and artwork are also peppered throughout the aisles and shelves. A small staff of four, including mother-son owners Kenneth and Marva Allen, manager Micheal Bannerman, and one intern, runs all 4,500 square feet of the space.

“This store is steeped in history…providing quality black literature that allows us to delve back and read so many important things about us and our history,” says regular customer, Yola Walker who just purchased her second copy of Randall Robinson’s novel Makeda. The freckled face of the retired educator glowed, her voice breathy. “It will broaden you. It will enhance you. We need this.”

Hue-Man, like other independently-owned businesses, faces aggressive competition from major bookstore chains and online stores. Still, some customers will go out of their way to shop at Hue-Man.

Overall, in spite of the Internet and the recession, the store has seen a 20 percent increase of sales over the last year.

Hue-Man employee Christina Vante (L) and co-owner Kenneth Allen (R). (Photo from Dominion of New York)

“It comes down to separating yourself based on customer service and marketing,” says Kenneth. “That’s part of the reason why we have 25 [book] signings a month…To keep afloat with the numbers we need.”

Featured authors have included celebrities like President Bill Clinton, rapper T.I., and director/actor Tyler Perry. “Hue-man is considered the cultural hub of the neighborhood,” says Micheal Bannerman, the co-manager who spoke with Maya Angelou on the phone only moments ago and once rung up iconic actress Ruby Dee at the register.

Meanwhile, up in the Bronx, Fern Jaffe had to close her bookstore, Paperbacks Plus, four years ago after nearly four decades of selling books in the Riverdale shop, The Riverdale Press reported.

Like Kenneth Allen, Jaffe did not treat books as just another product to sell. Her love of books kept her at the Riverdale Avenue store for 38 years. And on April 23, she stood in front of her bookstore’s old location — now Corner Café — to hand out free books as part of World Book Night, an international event to promote books and reading.

“To me it was very important to stand on the street in front of my old bookstore,” she told the Riverdale Press. “I’m a big supporter and booster of Riverdale Avenue. I thought it would be a lot of fun and make a statement.”

Jaffe also took the opportunity to reconnect with the community that her bookstore used to serve.

“Another goal of mine is to remind people that we had the only full-service independent community bookstore in the borough,” she said, adding that she misses referring books to people and physically handing books to her customers.

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