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A 'bittersweet' boom in business: Black-owned bookstores rush to meet unprecedented demand

Frugal Bookstore, the only Black-owned bookstore in Boston, said that they've received more than 20,000 orders in the past month.

Sleep has become somewhat of a distant concept to Shionka McGlory, the owner of Mocha Books in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as she has adjusted to heightened customer demand stemming from the death of George Floyd.

From managing inventory to corresponding with distributors to fulfilling hundreds of book orders, McGlory handles every aspect of the independent bookstore’s daily operations, even as its clientele has expanded exponentially.

“It’s rewarding, but exhausting,” McGlory told NBC News. “And the reason behind the increase of support is not only bittersweet, but it’s frustrating it had to happen like this.”

McGlory’s bookstore is not alone in seeing an unprecedented increase in business. Black-owned bookstores across the country are rushing to meet unprecedented demand as lists recommending anti-racist reading and Black-owned bookstores have proliferated online.

Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer put a knee on his neck for about eight minutes, inspired worldwide protests against racism and police brutality, and a collective determination among many white people and non-Black people of color to engage with the U.S.’s legacy of racial injustice.

Good Books is a Black-owned bookstore in Atlanta.
A pre-pandemic event at Good Books in Atlanta. Courtesy of Katie Mitchell

While the surge of orders has provided a much-appreciated boost to independent bookstores, several of which were in danger of closing its doors before the boom in business, it has also proven challenging, especially as the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect the supply chain.

Frugal Bookstore in Boston recently issued a statement thanking customers for their “socially conscious support” and asking them to be patient as they work to fulfill the more than 20,000 orders they’ve received since May 30, 75 percent of which are for the same titles. The bookstore stated they’ve been dealing with some “disheartening” responses from customers who are requesting refunds and complaining about how long their orders are taking to fulfill.

“I’m hoping the knowledge they gain from the books will radicalize people,” Katie Mitchell, who owns Good Books in Atlanta with her mother, Katherine, said. “A lot of people are buying books to learn how to be anti-racist, but even their interactions with bookstores could be a teachable moment. We’re still in a pandemic and shipping is slower, so you can’t come into a small Black-owned bookstore with the same expectations you’d have for Amazon.”

Katie Mitchell owns Good Books in Atlanta with her mother, Katherine.
Katie Mitchell owns Good Books in Atlanta with her mother, Katherine.Courtesy of Katie Mitchell

Mitchell added that leaving negative reviews or becoming frustrated with Black-owned bookstores that are facing intensified demand runs counter to the work readers who are buying anti-racist texts endeavor to undertake.

“As people try to learn, there’s a lot of unlearning of the practices and behaviors that come naturally,” Mitchell said. “It can be hard to see that sometimes when you’re living in a historical moment, but being able to say ‘I need to change my interpersonal behaviors’ is something I’d like to see.”

Aside from some impatient customers, however, bookstore owners say that their clientele has been overwhelmingly supportive.

“It’s been a phenomenal blessing and I’m so grateful for it, but it’s also been overwhelming,” Janeice Haynes, owner of Detroit Book City, said. “If I didn’t have meditation and prayer and didn’t drink a lot of water, I’d probably be lying flat on the floor.”

Perhaps one of the most gratifying aspects of the boom in business, Haynes said, has been the opportunity to partner with other local institutions. She’s received orders from public schools, public libraries, a Jewish day care center and even a doctor from the Detroit Medical Center who wanted to supply his co-workers with books so that they could address racial injustice in medicine.

VaLinda Miller, owner of Turning Page Bookshop in Goose Creek, S.C., said she’d been waiting since June 4 for 400 copies of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility” to arrive at the store. The shipment is scheduled to arrive this week, but in the meantime, she’s enjoyed recommending other genres of books to readers and referring them to alternative Black-owned bookstores when a specific text is out of stock. Though the recent uptick in orders reminded her of the demand for Michelle Obama’s 2018 memoir, “Becoming,” which was the best-selling book that year, she said she has never seen orders of this magnitude before.

“You don’t run a bookstore for the profit,” Miller said. “You run it to change the world.”

The demand has completely revolutionized the way Estelita’s Library, a justice-focused community library and bookstore in Seattle, operates. Whereas before the store focused on selling books from local authors, it has now expanded its offerings because of the constant stream of phone calls and emails. This store received orders for more than 7,000 books this week alone, according to its owner, Edwin Lindo.

Estelita's Library is a justice-focused community bookstore in Seattle.
Estelita's Library is a justice-focused community bookstore in Seattle.Courtesy of Edwin Lindo

“A 93-year-old woman called and said her pastor told her to order from a Black-owned bookstore for her bookclub … I spent a half-hour working with her to place her order because she hadn’t used her email in three years,” Lindo said. “These are the stories that motivate you.”

He added that though some people may get frustrated when a book is sold out, he hopes that “the slower pace is offset by the value that they’re getting.”

“Bigger companies might get it to you faster, but they’re also making sure there aren’t any more Black-owned bookstores,” Lindo said.

While Black booksellers welcome the increase in business, they also feel torn knowing a tragic event precipitated it.

“It’s really kind of sad in a way and it can feel like you’re profiting off of tragedy, ” Garbo Hearne, owner of Pyramid Art, Books & Custom Framing in Little Rock, said. “I just hope people are actually reading the books they buy, not putting them aside on a shelf.”

Pyramid Art, Books and Custom Framing is a bookstore and gallery in Little Rock, Ark.
Pyramid Art, Books and Custom Framing is a bookstore and gallery in Little Rock, Ark.Courtesy of Garbo Hearne

Mitchell of Good Books said while she also feels conflicted, there’s a distinction between the work that Black-owned bookstores have consistently been doing to elevate Black voices versus companies who are only now issuing statements in support of Black Lives Matter, even though the movement began in 2013.

“I started the store as a celebration of blackness, but it’s a conflict I’ve been wrestling with. I’d obviously prefer George Floyd to be alive than to have the increase in business,” Mitchell said. “If George Floyd’s death sparks this movement and it’s sustained, that would really be something to see in our lifetime.”

One way to ensure the movement's longevity would be to continue purchasing from Black-owned businesses long after this initial business boom, booksellers said.

"Keep spreading money to Black bookstores," Haynes said. "That's how we can achieve equity."