9 Thoughtful Ways to Support Black-Owned Bookstores This Month (and Every Month)

published Feb 4, 2021
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Black-owned bookstores are spaces for community involvement, a place to safely express a variety of opinions, and a resource for educational opportunities. But they’re also a rarity, and are often up against plenty of challenges: In the U.S., there are only 130 Black-owned bookstores, and they rely on community support to keep going. Many of these bookstores saw a surge of sales as protesters stood up against anti-Black racism in June of last year, but it is important to recognize that the support needs to be ongoing. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 41 percent of Black-owned businesses have been forced to close due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

As part of a conscious effort to prioritize supporting these bookstores and other Black-owned businesses, Apartment Therapy talked to the owners of Miss Read Books, Grassrootz Bookstore, Harriett’s Bookshop;  and Traci Thomas, the host of The Stacks Podcast; on nine ways to support Black-owned bookstores right now and in the future. 

Engage with Black-owned bookstores consistently, not only in response to a traumatic event.

Nyasha Bryant launched the digital bookseller Miss Read Books in the middle of the pandemic in August 2020. “I opened my bookshop because I wanted to celebrate and elevate the voices of BIPOC women and non-binary femmes,” she told Apartment Therapy.  “It’s no secret the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white, and unfortunately a lot of diversity and inclusion efforts we’ve made in recent times have been centered around the trauma ‘othered’ people experience.” 

She encourages non-Black people to engage on social media and show their support year-round, and to elevate and support Black-owned booksellers consciously.  “Please don’t follow Black-owned bookstores after a high-profile event involving racial discrimination and violence, only to unfollow a week after,” Bryant stressed. “Continuing to engage with Black-owned bookstores (and businesses in general) outside of past traumatic events is one way to genuinely and respectfully appreciate what we do.” 

Bring a genuine intention to support the business, and the services they provide.

Opened in July 2019, Grassrootz Bookstore is the only Black-owned bookshop in Arizona. During the pandemic, the store closed for eight months. And while co-owner Ali Nervis told Apartment Therapy that business picked up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a white police officer and the ensuing protests, he believes patrons should come in with a genuine intention to support the business. “It just comes down to the intentionality of the change you want to seek and how you can make those things happen,” he said.

He emphasized that the bookstore is a safe place for people to gather and people should come with an intention to “learn and look to understand” problems in the country and world. “We want to have books in our store that help people in their journey to understand themselves and their world,” Nervis said, adding that such understanding  only happens if people are “intentionally” seeking that knowledge. 

Don’t just buy the books — read the books that you are purchasing.

After the protests, there was a massive surge of must-read books centered on racism and social justice. Many people bought these books, but how many invested the time to read these stories? “We’re finding people bought a lot of books this summer and that’s great, but they didn’t read them, you know?,” Traci Thomas of The Stacks Podcast told Apartment Therapy. “If you’re trying to do the work to be anti-racist and help to restructure the racism that is the foundation of America, you have to do the reading too. You have to do the work part of it too.” 

Some people may erroneously think buying the anti-racism book is “enough.” Thomas doesn’t agree. “White people come into these spaces with, I’m doing the work, I’m buying the book, as opposed to saying, OK, I’m starting to do this one thing. How can I be open to more? I think coming from that place of curiosity is really important, whether it’s a bookstore or a clothing line or a skincare line. That humility has to be there, otherwise it’s [almost] antagonistic.” 

Yes, you can (and should) buy all kinds of books from Black-owned bookstores.

The surge of interest in anti-racist books last year was important, but is only one small portion of the books by Black authors available. “I opened my bookstore to highlight stories from BIPOC perspectives that did not solely revolve around trauma because we can be heroes, dreamers, and lovers, too,” Bryant says. “Nothing makes me happier than a customer who wants to engage with BIPOC perspectives outside of their trauma and really discover the breadth and variety of storytelling that exists.” 

Thomas agrees. Her go-to bookstore is Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, and she makes an effort to place orders for books that she’s interested in, more broadly. “Any bookstore that takes online orders can get any book; just because they don’t have it physically in stock doesn’t mean that they can’t get it,” she said. “If I plan to go and browse the shelves, I can also place an order to pick it up and do all my book shopping through them. It doesn’t have to be, ‘Oh, I can only buy Black books at Black-owned bookstores. I know for some people, shopping at Amazon is just pragmatic because it costs less. But if you’re in the place to fully support and buy a full price book, do that at a Black bookstore.”

Don’t have impossible expectations for Black-owned bookstores.

Almost immediately after people made a rush to support Black-owned bookstores last June, they placed outsized demands on those same booksellers. “People need to remember that just because something is Black-owned doesn’t mean that it’s any cheaper or magical in any way. It’s the same thing. Black people are people. If it takes a long time right now [to ship your book], because we’re in a pandemic and it takes a long time from Black bookstores, white bookstore, and Latino-owned bookstores.” 

Remember that books from a Black-owned bookstore is a celebration of that community.

There’s no denying that Amazon is a go-to for buying books largely for its convenience. Jeannine A. Cook, owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia, has a different approach. She realizes it’s people’s right to shop where they want, but buying books or other goods is deeply personal for her. “I go where I am celebrated. I don’t go where I am just tolerated,” she told Apartment Therapy.

When Cook was 11, her librarian mother lost her eyesight, so she and her sisters took turns reading books to their mother out loud. Even as a college student, she combined her activism and her love of books, and eventually opened Harriett’s Bookshop, named after Harriet Tubman, in February 2020. Cook wanted to create a meditative, creative, and spiritual vibe in her book space.

Thomas agreed, noting that Black-owned bookstores are also often a space where Black authors and readers can be their most authentic selves and engage with work that other bookstores might frustratingly discredit. “They are often the spaces where Black authors are able to go (when we’re not in the pandemic) and have book events where they’ve been turned away from predominantly white bookstores,” she said. “I see this over and over again, that certain bookstores that are owned and operated by white booksellers turn away books that ended up becoming hugely popular, [and were] spurred on by the support of local Black owned bookstores.” 

Be mindful of the space you’re taking up, especially if you’re not Black.

Black-owned bookstores are community hubs, especially for many Black people, and Thomas recommends that non-Black people remember not to make their actions about them.

“Just be humble and mindful and curious and understand that there are things that maybe you don’t know and that you don’t understand and that it’s okay,” she said, adding that it’s important to “enter these spaces, especially a Black-owned bookstore, which is sacred for so many of us, with that humility and that openness.” Instead, she recommends “going into these spaces and asking, ‘What’s appropriate or what’s needed,’ or ‘How can I serve better? How can I be a better member of this community?‘”

If you already have (or want to start) a book clubs, use that power to support Black-owned bookstores.

Bryant is always keeping an eye out for her customer’s needs. “I am always on the lookout for new books or brainstorming events that would be of interest to my customers, she says, adding that she encourages people to talk to their bookstore owners and ask about how they can get involved and support in a personal way. 

One easy way to support Black-owned bookstores is through your book club. “If you’re part of a book club, consider signing up with a bookstore to purchase your books,” Bryant said. As a bookstore owner, she added, “I’m more than happy to carry a book club’s title of the month and offer an exclusive discount for members.” 

Keep an open dialogue with your bookstore owner to find out ways you can show support.

Sometimes the best policy is to ask the owners where they need help. The easiest (and most obvious) way to support is to buy books, but sometimes that isn’t an option. Thomas recommends following the bookstore on social media and promoting events, and if you don’t know where to start, “I would ask the booksellers… Maybe you can just ask and listen to find out what is needed of you before you go out and do things because you think you know better,” she said

 “We’re trying to do our best to create a brighter world and we hope that everyone would either support or do the same thing,” Nervis added.

Additional reporting by Ella Cerón.