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Bookstores by and for people of color are finding their industry niche

Derrick Young organizes a display at MahoganyBooks in Southeast Washington. Young operates the business with his wife, Ramunda. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)
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Inside a bookstore inside an arts center in one of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods sit stacks of books for what Angela Spring calls “the other D.C.”

It’s the D.C. that sits apart from gilded towers of governance. The D.C. not readily found in children’s history books. The D.C. that is black, brown, immigrant, other.

Spring, owner of Duende District, a pop-up bookstore that exclusively carries books written by and about people of color, gestures to titles such as “An African American and Latinx History of the United States,” a look at the shared experience and struggle of black and Latino people over more than 200 years, and “The Poet X,” a novel written in verse by District poet Elizabeth Acevedo.

On this day, Spring was working out of MahoganyBooks, which in November became the first new bookstore to open east of the Anacostia River in more than 20 years.

In their efforts to reclaim literature for people of color and underserved communities, these small, independent bookstores have managed to find their place in an industry dominated by Finding a niche, bookstore industry experts said, is the path forward and has spurred an increase in independent bookstores throughout the District and nationwide.

“We’re a town full of people of color, full of people from all over, and I think a lot about how we can best serve these communities,” Spring said. “There are very few spaces that are not just for white people, and as a person of color, you’re taught that that’s just the way it is. So with Duende District, I want people of color to come into a space like this — a gorgeous, welcoming, sensory space — and feel like, yes, this is all for you.”

MahoganyBooks, owned by married couple Derrick and Ramunda Young, has a complementary mission: to provide books written for, by and about “people of the African diaspora” to residents of Southeast Washington.

Though the shop has existed online for more than a decade, the Youngs said it is important to create a physical space where people can see themselves reflected in the stacks.

“The goal was always to open a brick-and-mortar book store, and once we got into that physical space, we wanted to be there for a long time” Derrick Young said. “We wanted to have a community presence, something that would allow us to do events, that would be a cultural hub where people could really get into what we’re trying to build.”

Small, independent bookstores like theirs have thrived in recent years. From 2009 to 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the number of independent bookstores nationally rose 35 percent, from 1,651 to 2,227 stores, according to the American Booksellers Association. Meanwhile, big-box retailers foundered; among them, Borders is now defunct, and Barnes & Noble is struggling.

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Over the past two years, the District has experienced something of a bookstore renaissance, with new shops opening in most of the city’s wards, including East City Bookshop on Capitol Hill; Solid State Books in the H Street corridor in Northeast Washington; Walls of Books in Parkview; and Amazon’s first Washington-area, bricks-and-mortar outpost in Georgetown, to name a few. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“In the mid-2000s, as Amazon was starting to take off and you have the introduction of the Kindle, people thought ‘not only is this the end of bookstores, it’s going to be the end of books,’ ” said Ryan Raffaelli, a Harvard University business professor who has studied the industry for 20 years. “But then, interestingly, the opposite happens. Bookstores start to take off. And it’s all indies, because they’re bringing you this highly curated, personal, local experience. They’re not just selling books, they’re creating and engaging in the community in a way the Amazons or the Barnes & Nobles of the world can’t.”

As a pop-up store, Duende District takes the idea of building and finding community a step further by occupying space in multiple neighborhoods throughout the Washington area.

No two locations are the same. Each has its own vibe, personality and audience.

In Toli Moli, a South Asian bodega at Union Market, where Duende District has one of its two permanent outposts, Spring has a shelf of books that center on the Asian diaspora: children’s books, cookbooks, coffee-table reads. The authors’ origins are as diverse as the spices sold in the store — Burmese, Indian, Chinese, Thai.

On the last Wednesday of each month, the two businesses host a collaborative event called “Cook and Book,” which is part cooking class, part author event, part social gathering.

“It’s a point of pride for me, especially the children’s books, because when I was a child — my mom is from Burma and my dad is a white guy from Pittsburgh — the only book I had that even remotely resembled me or my family was a book about a Hawaiian princess,” said Simone Jacobson, co-owner of Toli Moli. “What is your sense of belonging if none of the characters you’re exposed to in books, in media, in your everyday life reflect you?”

At MahoganyBooks, the other permanent location, Spring focuses on bringing in authors from a variety of backgrounds, besides black authors, because MahoganyBooks has that covered. The two businesses found their way to each other through a shared ethos of community building.

“We had very similar ideals when it came to culture, when it came to community, when it came to the books,” Ramunda Young said of Spring, who identifies as Puerto Rican and Panamanian American. “We found in each other someone who was just as passionate about all of this as we were. It was a natural fit to collaborate.”

The shop owners recently welcomed their first author in a planned events series they hope will spur conversation and debate among black and Latino residents. Paul Ortiz, a University of Florida professor and the author of “An African American and Latinx History of the United States,” led a discussion about the overlapping and complementary histories of the two groups.

“It was such an eye-opening and challenging conversation,” said Pablo Sierra, co-owner of Walls of Books in Parkview. “I think people of color, because we don’t learn our own histories in the same way in school or in a lot of mainstream media, we have this hunger to understand ourselves and to understand what’s going on, our histories, our place in the world.”

Spring will set up shop this month at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, where she will share space with artists of color. Spring initially intended to open her own bricks-and-mortar shop but said that the pop-up model has allowed more opportunities than she might have had if she were tied to a single spot.

Innovations like pop-up bookstores and pushing community-centered events, such as author readings, book signings, book clubs and group discussions, have helped small bookstores stay afloat and remain relevant, Raffaelli said.

“It’s bringing us back to our roots and fostering real community debate,” he said. “I think people, especially people who spend their whole days in front of a computer, are really craving that kind of conversation.”

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The idea of creating a bookstore by and for people of color is not unique, though stores of this nature are rare.

In Washington, one of the last black-owned bookstores aimed at creating an oasis for African American culture, Sisterspace and Books, was evicted amid a gentrifying U Street in 2004.

As the city has changed and the number of black residents in a city once known by the moniker “Chocolate City” has fallen, Spring said she felt increasingly compelled to carve out dedicated space for people of color to enjoy books written by, for and about them.

“Books are so important, and book culture is so important, but for so long in this country it has been the providence of white people — they were the gatekeepers,” Spring said. “Think about all these communities here that are not white, affluent or centered around the federal government. That’s the real city. That’s who we’re here for.”

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