Hodari Ali was studying international relations on his way to a possible career in diplomacy when he stumbled into the distributing business.
"I was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins," he recalled, "when a friend asked me to find someone to distribute Africa magazine. I looked, but I couldn't find anyone. So I decided to do it myself."
Today, he operates a flourishing business out of his Northeast home. He's grown from a one-magazine outfit and now carries 25 periodicals, including Black Collegian, Encore, Black Scholar, Africa Report, Southern Africa and Islamic Revolution.
In Washington, Ali has racks in most 7-11s, a handful of Giant Food stores and two People's drug stores, right alongside those of District News, the firm that held a virtual monoply on the distribution of periodicals in the city until Ali came along.
"I think he's made (professional) buyers more conscious that a black reading audience exists," said Linda Hardman, manager of the Book Annex's 19th and L Street store.
"I know Washington is mostly black, but most buyers are white and suburban and think black books don't sell. So they don't buy black books. His (Ali's) outlets are the only place where I can get black American magazines."
Post Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), publisher of Third World Books in Chicago, said of Ali, "He has made a definite difference in the way our books sell in Washington. He's probably tripled our sales for Black Books Bulletin. There is no other black book distributor in the country working on the same scale. He's broken into an area where blacks have not functioned."
Ali, 24, started out using the family car to carry magazines around to stores that sometimes didn't want them unless District News brought them.
Ali persisted. He has a quiet manner and gentle smile. Almost 6 feet, thin and bespectacled, he looks like the diplomat or professor he might have become had he continued at Johns Hopkins.
Slowly the obstacles began to crumble. People's Drug Stores gave him nine outlets. Giant followed, after which came newstands like General News and Universal News and book stores at most of the universities in the area.
"We have 150 retail outlets between Washington and Baltimore," he said with a satisfied smile. "There are five people working part-time -- and I'm working full time and a half." He's also begun shipping to a couple dozen book stores in the Midwest and South.
Ali is also the only Washington distributor for Grove Press, publisher to the avant-garde, and International Publishers, a small New York company specializing in leftist writers.
"We view these magazines and books as alternative information that people won't see on TV or read in newspapers," he said "I still think of myself as a communicator."