In 1992, Karibu Books was a lowly lonely vending table of incense, oils and books for and about African Americans, says co-owner Simba Sana.
Today Sana, 34, and his partner, Yao Ahoto, 32, run a buzzing bookstore in Prince George's Plaza in Hyattsville, three full-size shops in other Washington area malls and one mini-store at Pentagon City. They oversee a staff of 40 or so.
Karibu is swimming against stiff tides. Independent bookstores have been in peril for decades. And niche shops, such as Karibu, fight a tougher struggle. Though African American income rose from $543 billion in 2000 to $602 billion in 2001, according to Target Market News, a firm that tracks African American spending, the amount of money black readers spent on books decreased from $356 million to $308 million.
Karibu must be doing something right.
Snoop around the flagship store and you'll see it's like a small Borders or Barnes & Noble. And it's not. It's got hardwood flooring, handsome shelves, eye-snaring displays, a couple of comfy reading chairs. But there are no Nora Roberts novels anywhere. No Stephen Kings. No Tom Clancys.
Instead shelves are lined with Toni Morrisons, Terry McMillans, Eric Jerome Dickeys, Walter Mosleys, Connie Briscoes, and fiction and nonfiction by other black writers.
At the front door, display tables hold stacks of "Keeping the Faith" by Tavis Smiley, "Acting Out" by Benilde Little, "Princess Sister" by Shelia Copeland and "The Portable Promised Land" by Toure.
Subject signs above the bookcases are telltale, too: Race/Culture; Revolutionary; Brothers & Sisters; Caribbean Studies.
In the Street Life shelves, you can thumb through paperbacks by Donald Goines, such as "Whoreson: The Story of a Ghetto Pimp," or titles by Iceberg Slim, such as "Mama Black Widow."
Not all the books in the store are by or about African Americans. In the Conspiracy section, for example, you'll find the immodestly titled "The Biggest Secret: The Book That Will Change the World," by David Icke, who maintains that the financiers and politicians controlling the world today are descended from extraterrestrial reptilian gods.
Customers come from all around. Pearlina Lewis, 69, lives in the District, but drives 20 minutes to buy books from Karibu. This morning she has a sackful, including "A Separate Cinema: Fifty Years of Black Cast Posters" and "The Art and History of Black Memorabilia."
"I buy first-edition hardbacks," Lewis says. "I have books all over my house. The ones I don't plan to keep, I give to the public library."
In a black beret and leather coat, post office employee Donald Henry, 45, browses for books by and about Zora Neale Hurston. He says he became curious about Hurston because the post office is selling her commemorative stamps. "I thought I'd pick up a book about her," Henry says, "and learn something about her life."
This is exactly what Sana envisioned 10 years ago when he and Ahoto opened their first stores: an upscale bookstore where black readers could learn more about black history and culture.
Wearing a 1924 Atlanta Black Crackers baseball cap, wire-rims, an OFAAFO (One for All, All for One) sweat shirt, several T-shirts, bluejeans and sneakers, the soft-spoken Sana skips down the steps to the office and warehouse space beneath the Hyattsville store. There, employees receive and ship boxes of books, monitor inventory, post and pay bills, and plan Karibu's 10th-anniversary celebration. Tonight, for example, the staff will hand out pieces of birthday cake at the Prince George's Plaza store and W.E.S. Group Jazz Collective will perform.
A wall of the small accounting office is plastered with pictures of African American writers.
Sana grew up in Northeast Washington in the Carver Terrace neighborhood. As a boy he devoured fantasy books such as "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by C.S. Lewis and "The Hobbit" by J.R.R. Tolkien. He went to Gonzaga High School, then Mount Saint Mary's College and graduated in 1990.
That year, he met Ahoto, who had grown up in Prince George's County. Sana received a graduate degree at Howard University in African studies. Ahoto graduated from Bowie State University and got his MFA at the University of Maryland.
"If we wanted to start Karibu today," Sana says, "we couldn't do it." Vending opportunities in the District have shrunk. But in 1992, things were different. Ahoto set up a table in Dupont Circle or on K Street. In 1993, Sana -- who persuaded Ahoto to sell books, too -- became a business partner. The two were members of the African Development Organization, a group that promoted black culture and nationalism.
"Yao and I both had a love for books," Sana says. "Yao is a poet. He is the first poet I ever met."
In October 1993, Sana and Ahoto opened a kiosk in Prince George's Plaza. The next year they moved down the hall into an 810-square-foot store. The two men were impressive, recalls the mall's general manager, Henry Watford, who encouraged them to open a full-fledged bookshop.
"The concept was unique for the market," Watford says, "and I thought it would work very well with the demographics of the mall."
There was another chain bookstore in the mall, a B. Dalton. "I felt very strongly that the Karibu Books concept could compete," Watford says. "Karibu did win out. B. Dalton left the mall and Karibu continued to prosper." Watford believes that Sana and Ahoto could go national with Karibu Books.
The word karibu, Sana explains, means "welcome" in Swahili. The stores welcome authors as well as customers. The literary calendar is alive with readings and signings by well-known writers such as bell hooks and Marita Golden, as well as up-and-comers like the Washington area's S. James Guitard, author of "Chocolate Thoughts: Short Stories, Essays and Poetry From the Hearts and Minds of Real Black Men," and Darren Coleman, a writer virtually unknown in mainstream bookstores. "We've sold about 500 copies of his book, 'Before I Let Go,' " Sana says.
Best-selling author Connie Briscoe, a Falls Church-based writer and author of the novel "P.G. County," says: "When I met Simba he owned a small kiosk in a mall, and I had just had my first novel published. I admire the way he's grown and expanded from that lone kiosk to a chain of stores." She adds, "We've grown up together."
Besides the main location, there are full-service Karibu stores in Bowie Town Center, Iverson Mall in Hillcrest Heights and Forest Village Mall in Forestville. The Pentagon City store is a large kiosk.
Downstairs in the Hyattsville store, the company's mission statement hangs in a frame: "To create a financially viable African owned and operated cultural institution."
Sana and Ahoto promote black music and poetry, as well as books. They even sponsored the boxer Beethavean "Bee" Scottland for a time. The soft-spoken Sana, it turns out, likes to box. After a number of fights, however, Scottland chose to work with another manager. He was knocked out in the ring in June 2001 and died in the hospital several days later.
Referring to Karibu's mission statement, Sana estimates that the company is still at least a couple of years away from financial freedom. But life has slowed down for him.
Sana points to one sign of success: He says with a sigh, "I'm able to read more."