Tapping a Market

THE SUMMER'S best-seller at Pyramid Books' four stores has been The Blackman's Guide to Understanding the Blackwoman, a tome that is pretty far removed from the realm of your typical self-help tract. Among the milder statements in the Guide: "The Blackwoman is out of control . . . Rise Blackman, and take your rightful place as ruler of the universe and everything in it. Including the Blackwoman."

The stores have sold more than a thousand copies of Shahrazad Ali's self-published paperback. "The men come in and buy it with a big smile, the women with a frown," reports Pyramid president Hodari Abdul-Ali. "It's stimulated much discussion, debate and controversy within the African-American community."

Without Abdul-Ali's stores, the debate in this area would be much more muted. You won't find The Blackman's Guide at your neighborhood Crown or Walden. For that matter, you probably won't find a Crown, Walden or any other bookstore in the places where Pyramid has set up. "We're trying to tap a market that's been ignored by the bigger companies," says Abdul-Ali.

It's an approach that seems to be working. The first store, on Georgia Avenue near Howard University, opened in 1981; a second on Good Hope Road in Anacostia two years ago; a third, and so far the largest, at Prince Georges Plaza in Hyattsville in January; and a fourth in May at Hechinger Mall on Benning Road in Northeast. The end of this month will see a store in Baltimore, and by the end of 1990 one in San Diego. ("That's my hometown, and my mother's waiting to be the manager of it," explains Abdul-Ali.)

"To my knowledge," says Abdul-Ali, "we're the first independent chain of African-American owned-and-operated bookstores."

The Pyramid stores stock a small number of titles, 1,000 to 2,000 a store, all black-related. But the stores are also designed to function as meeting places and community centers. The Hechinger Mall store, for instance, subleases space to a Shabazz bakery and Timboktu import store. Pyramid runs a book club in conjunction with WDCU -- FM and has sporadic story hours for children, as well as more traditional author appearances (this Thursday at the Hechinger store, for instance, Jannette Dates, co-editor of Split Image: African Americans in the Mass Media, will sign copies of her book.)

To go from two stores to six in one year is a large leap, especially if the economy in this area, as expected, enters a bumpy patch. What will help, Abdul-Ali believes, is that "our stores feature material that emphasizes the importance of self-reliance and developing economic options" -- material that could be even more useful in a downturn.

Abdul-Ali didn't intend to become an entrepreneur. After graduating from Howard in 1976, he became a reporter with the Washington Afro-American. "My goal was to be a correspondent in Africa," he says. "I can picture myself getting shot in Liberia right now." But on the side, he started a magazine and newspaper distribution company. "It went so well I never turned back."

Why the name Pyramid? Two reasons, says Abdul-Ali. "First, it's symbolic of the great cultures that were built in Africa, especially along the Nile Valley. And second, it was an easy name to remember."

A Poet's Priorities

SAMUEL JOHNSON has a line to the effect that nothing concentrates a man's mind as much as the news that he will be hanged in the morning. Something of the sort seems to be happening with Donald Hall, the indefatigable poet/textbook writer/critic/anthologist/essayist whose Old and New Poems is reviewed on Page 1. When Hall, now 62, was diagnosed with colon cancer last fall, he dropped a biography he was working on in favor of projects closer to his heart.

"I may live for the next 20 years, but there's one chance out of three I'll die in the next three, four, five years," was the way he put it last winter. "In that case, I want to spend it doing poetry."

While he's slowed down a bit since his frenzied post-discovery pace, he says now that "I'm still working more hours a day on poetry than I ever have before." This happens during the early hours of the morning on the ancestral New Hampshire farm he shares with his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. Later, he does other writing and answers the mail to the tune of about 4,000 letters and cards a year -- a number sufficient to persuade the local post office to award him his own personal nine-digit zip code.

But the poetry comes first. "I think the fear of death, the dread of death, of stopping writing, has got me into a place where I'm working more concentratedly," he says. This material, he believes, is at least the equal of any of his previous efforts, but he doesn't plan to publish much of it soon. Hall is all too aware that many poets get more productive in their later years -- Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Robert Penn Warren among them -- but that this stuff is rarely regarded as their best.

In the meantime, there were other books in the pipeline. One of the few poets who neither teaches nor has an independent income -- being Poet Laureate of New Hampshire doesn't pay any bills -- he is also currently the editor, with Pat Corrington Wykes, of Anecdotes of Modern Art (Oxford), and he has a collection of essays on New England life, Here at Eagle Pond, appearing in November.

These last achieve the difficult task of describing New Hampshire life without sentimentalizing it. Hall talks about the weather: "I grant that winter causes pain -- in cold January sometimes I lie abed until six -- but even winter is gorgeous; when the moon is high, I wake at midnight and wander through the farmhouse in gray, spooky light that illuminates every corner, the ceilings luminous with reflections from snowy hayfields." And his house: "My great-grandfather was born in 1826 and died in 1913; some of his clothes remain in the back chamber, waiting to come in handy." And more weather: "Convention speaks merely of four seasons; here, we number at least a thousand, and on one good day our spendthrift climate runs through seven or eight." By the end of the book, you want him to get the spare room ready for you.

Hall's first book, Exiles and Marriages, appeared in 1955. An auspicious debut, it was anointed as such in Time magazine, got nominated for the National Book Award and put Hall on track for the prestigious Lamont Prize for his second book. Consequently, in the small poetry universe, there was a certain amount of jealousy at this young comer.

"I remember meeting Galway Kinnell for the first time three or four years later," Hall says. "He said, 'God, I used to hate you.' Everybody did. But I sort of peaked too soon, in the immortal words of Richard Nixon."

The low point was in the early '70s, in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I thought maybe I was finished. It's happened that people have just dried up in their 40s." His first marriage had broken up, he was unsuccessfully trying to live the Playboy philosophy, the world was in disorder.

Then, in the fall of '75, he and Kenyon moved back to Eagle Pond. "I didn't come here in order to write poems," he says. "I thought probably I'd never write about New Hampshire again, because I'll be there. One more theory shot to hell."

Small Is Horrible

THE PHRASE "small press" tends to conjure up the image of a lovesick amateur poet mimeographing ill-conceived sonnets in his basement. He tries to sell them, finds no takers and ends up pressing them awkwardly on relatives and friends.

Some small presses really are like that. But an increasing number of outfits are beating the big guys at their own game.

Consider Arkham House, a science fiction and horror publisher based in Sauk City, Wisc., whose most recent effort is reviewed on page 9. It's often called a small press, but in terms of longevity (this is its 50th year), appearance (the books are as well-made and handsome as any on the market), editorial content (in recent years, among the best in the field) and size of press run (about 4,000 copies a book), it matches or outdoes most of the "big presses" -- i.e., the mainstream New York firms.

The roots of Arkham go back to H.P. Lovecraft, a New England recluse with a long jaw, a long-winded prose style and a taste for ending stories with the italic scream of the narrator as he glimpses the tentacles of some nameless eldritch horror reaching toward him. Still, Lovecraft has his admirers, and is considered the most important American horror writer after Poe and before, say, Stephen King.

After Lovecraft's death in 1937, two of his disciples got together to issue a mammoth volume of his work, naming the press after an imaginary town where many of Lovecraft's monsters dwelt. Over the years Arkham published a good deal of Lovecraft, many titles by the founders, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, and a host of other horror writers who defined the field in the 1940s and early '50s. Later there were dry periods, but the press always stayed alive.

Cleveland lawyer Sheldon Jaffery, author of the authoritative source The Arkham House Companion (Starmont House), suggests Arkham survived because it had the market to itself. "During the '50s, science fiction got really hot and the New York publishers detected there was a national market for it. That led to the downfall of science fiction small presses like Shasta and Gnome. But no one was interested in horror, the supernatural or dark fantasy. So Arkham went on its little track all by itself."

Now that horror is one of the biggest fields around, Arkham has quietly switched tracks. The material it is publishing now, as represented by its recent books by J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard and Bruce Sterling, is cutting-edge science fiction. The quality is at least as high as any handled by a New York editor with an expense account at "21."

"The serious publishers are the smaller guys who can afford to take the risks," says Arkham editor Jim Turner, one of the press's two employees. "My goal is to do hardcover editions of material that wouldn't get there if it weren't for me. Otherwise, what's the point?"

Turner, now 45, arrived at Arkham through an unusual route. A long-time fan, he was a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, working on a Ph.D. dissertation involving the pagan gods of the church fathers. "I expected to be standing behind a lectern putting undergraduates to sleep," he says.

But after Derleth's death in 1971, Turner contacted the heirs and offered to help. "One thing led to another, and I've been here ever since." He still remembers the look on his adviser's face when he said he was quitting to work for -- indeed, to become -- a horror publisher. "He looked at me as if I had just been convicted of child abuse."