Black Readers Are Jolted by a Chain's Demise

A glimpse inside a Karibu bookstore. Karibu, which carried a range of African American authors, announced that it will close its remaining stores in the D.C. area in the next three weeks. Video by Hamil Harris/The Washington Post
By Lonnae O'Neal Parker and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 24, 2008

By early afternoon, word had spread and dozens of customers crowded the bookstore's aisles. One of the nation's largest black-owned bookstore chains, Karibu, will be closed by mid-February, and people brought their shock and sadness to Bowie Town Center, along with their checkbooks.

They pulled titles from the shelves: civil rights biographies, Harlem Renaissance classics. And they lamented.

Freddie Mills, a security officer who was scanning the aisles as his 2-year-old daughter played nearby, said he was "angry, angry, angry."

"Where are we going to get books for our kids?" he said.

This was more than a bookstore; it was community, it was "culture," Mills said. Urban-lit author Omar Tyree, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and local bestselling erotica author Zane are among the many writers who have done signings for the stores.

"It's like the barbershop, like the black beauty salon," said co-owner Simba Sana. "It's a place where black people can come and lay their heads down."

Independent bookstores such as Karibu are closing across the country, often defeated by financial pressures from large chains and online superstores that sell discounted bestsellers or dwarf smaller stores with their size and marketing muscle.

But Sana said the closings were not caused by financial pressures. "Karibu's demise is a result of the ownership, including myself, failure to resolve conflict in a peaceful way and also a failure to end relationships amicably," he said.

He wouldn't elaborate, but a store manager said the owners disagreed on the direction of the chain.

"Simba wanted the company to go national," said Jonathan Robinson, who has managed the Bowie store, one of six in the chain, for two years. Co-owner Hoke "Brother Yao" Glover "felt it wasn't ready for that yet," Robinson said. He added that last fall, Sana's wife, Sunny, who bought books for the stores, abruptly left -- the two are divorcing -- and that customers began to notice that titles weren't coming in.

Glover could not be reached for comment.

"It's sad," Robinson said. "Two people called me, crying on the phone."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company