By late 1992, Simba Sana's $30,000-a-year auditing job with accounting giant Ernst & Young was weighing on his conscience. He felt there was little connection between his work and his goal of helping his fellow African Americans advance.
"I was a corporate type," he says with a wry smile. "I always prided myself on my work since early in college, but I wasn't where I wanted to be," said Sana, who likes to quote from Malcolm X's biography in everyday conversation.
With the encouragement of Yao Ahoto, a friend he met at the African Development Organization, a Washington volunteer nonprofit, Sana decided to peddle books on the street and seek a life that would follow his true passion: African American literature. He resigned from Ernst & Young on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, Jan. 15, 1993.
Sana's philosophy of helping fellow African Americans is now a central tenet of Karibu Books--two stores and a kiosk in Prince George's County. In an age when most independent bookstores are threatened by pressure from big chains such as Border's Books, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com, Karibu has more than doubled its revenue since 1995 by serving the black community's interests and concerns.
Karibu's handsome, well-lighted storefront in Prince George's Plaza is testament to its success.
After Sana quit Ernst & Young, he and Ahoto--a longtime street vendor of T-shirts, jewelry and incense--worked seven days a week trying to get three book-vending stands going. During the weekends, they traveled to New York, Philadelphia and festivals along the East Coast to sell their wares, about 20 percent of which were books by and targeted to African Americans.
By late 1993, they had poured nearly all of the revenue back into the business, and they were able to open kiosks in Prince George's Plaza and Landover Mall, where Karibu now has a 445-square-foot store. Ten months later, the manager of Prince George's Plaza offered them a storefront, and since then, business has been expanding, mostly through word of mouth, said Sana, who co-owns Karibu with Ahoto and Ahoto's wife, Karla.
There are several reasons for Karibu's success, Sana said. First, there were "not a whole lot of demands on it in its infancy stage," and they were willing to live on meager salaries, Sana said. The mall's foot traffic also helped them increase their visibility, he said. Finally, "having a niche does give us some level of distinction," he said. The B. Dalton's bookstore a few storefronts away is not a threat because it doesn't serve the same market, he said.
Karibu, which has seven full-time employees, prides itself on being able to offer a variety of books to its customers. To keep up with the 45,000 new books published a year, Sana spends many nights crashing in a sleeping bag in Karibu's office, researching new releases. Karibu, which means "welcome" in Swahili, doesn't shy away from carrying controversial books, such as "Nappy Hair" by Carolivia Herron or "The Bell Curve" by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray--a book Sana said he personally disagreed with.
Douglas Frazier, of Northwest Washington, drives to Hyattsville to browse Karibu Books at least three times a year. "I'm trying to buy more books by black authors, and this is the place," he said, paying for a novel and mystery he plans to give to his wife for Christmas.
The month of December is "the money time," with revenue up 260 percent over average months, Sana said. But Karibu doesn't carry Christmas- or Thanksgiving-related books because they don't want to mar their message: to offer the African American population a reflection and affirmation of themselves.
"People are begging big white companies to come into this county," Sana said. But Sana, who sees the bookstore and its success as proof of the strength of black economic independence, says, "We need to provide them with a substitute."
CAPTION: Keith Kavanaugh waits in line to pay for a book of poetry by Tupac Shakur at Karibu Books. The person at right is buying the same book.
CAPTION: Yvette Benjamin, of Washington, browses.