Black Readers Are Jolted by a Chain's Demise
Loss of Karibu, a Result Of Owners' Rift, Leaves A Hole in a Community

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."

Christopher Chambers, a Silver Spring author and Georgetown University professor who has done readings and moderated panels at Karibu, which is pronounced ka-ree-boo and means "welcome" in Swahili, said he had received more than a dozen e-mails about Karibu by yesterday morning, including one from bestselling author Walter Mosley. By the afternoon, he had 20.

Chambers said the reaction to the news of the closings was "shock."

"Some of these other stores have been hanging on by fingernails from the beginning, small storefront shops that sold incense greeting cards, figurines and books as a sideline. This was a real chain with real brick-and-mortar stores," he said.

Glover began selling African American-oriented books on black college campuses in 1992, and the following year he partnered with Sana to launch Karibu with a pushcart in Landover Mall and a kiosk in the Mall at Prince George's in Hyattsville. By 2005, when it opened its sixth store, in Baltimore, the company had more than 40 employees and sponsored hundreds of in-store and community events.

The Pentagon City store closed after Christmas. The Baltimore location, along with one in Forestville, will close Sunday. The last three outlets, in Bowie and Hyattsville and at Iverson Mall in Temple Hills, are scheduled to close Feb. 10.

When Stephanie Leonard was a youngster, her Girl Scout troop sat at Nikki Giovanni's feet as she read poems at the Karibu in the Mall at Prince George's. Leonard, now a 25-year-old residence hall director at Bowie State University, grabbed a picture book yesterday from the movie "Dreamgirls" and the book "Sex.Lies.Murder.Fame," from her favorite author, Lolita Files. "I couldn't believe it when my sister sent me the e-mail," Leonard said. "I feel like it's a death in the community."

Outside the Bowie store, a woman stopped to read the sign announcing the closing and shook her head. A bookstore closes, and suddenly there aren't enough words.

Dandrea James-Harris, an editorial assistant with Heart and Soul Magazine, said that when friends visit from her native Harlem, Karibu has always been a required stop. She carried Randall Robinson's "Quitting America" and Paul Robeson Jr.'s "A Black Way of Seeing."

She is working on a research project, and she said she buys general titles at Barnes & Noble but always bought works by black authors from Karibu.

James-Harris said she was stunned but won't lose heart.

"I'm so hopeful," she said. "I believe that we will regroup and that something like this will open."

Meanwhile, along with dozens of other customers, she scooped up titles she feared she wouldn't be able to get anywhere else. Overhead, James Brown belted out his most soulful notes -- a bookstore requiem.

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