I’d already dined across the street at the Zora Neale Hurston-themed Eatonville, and as I stared at the paintings of skulls and marshland and of Hurston herself on the wall, my skin prickled with excitement. I felt transported to an experience I’d long read about and coveted, a bygone time in American history where black writers were feted and funded in the cramped apartments of their struggling artist friends and in the lavish homes of their white benefactors.
I had no real reason to go over to Busboys and Poets that evening, other than wanting to see whether I felt the same thrill standing inside it as I had walking into Eatonville. I didn’t immediately, as Busboys’ decor is modern, its homage to literary history not quite as on-the-nose. But I wasn’t expecting to find cases full of books. I didn’t know it then, but Teaching for Change Bookstore, a 10-year-old business specializing in multicultural literature, has been housed inside Busboys and Poets since the restaurant opened. I strolled straight back to the shelves, all of which displayed books by black authors. It was almost disorienting, the heady mix of recognition — Nnedi Okorafor, Tina Ansa McElroy, Nalo Hopkinson! — and awe (They carry this author’s whole oeuvre in-store?!).
Rarely have I visited bookstores where books by or for people of color were the only books stocked, and the opportunity to do so is steadily on the decline. Black-owned bookstores are in a gradual downswing. Maryland’s Karibu Books, once the country’s largest black bookstore chain, closed its locations in 2008. Marcus Books in San Francisco, the oldest black bookstore in the country, closed last summer, after 54 years in business. Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe, one of the most prominent black bookstores in New York City, closed in 2012. And, citing the rising costs of rent and the enduring boom of online book sales, smaller stores have been closing across the country. According to the African American Literature Book Club, fewer than 100 independently owned black bookstores were still in operation in the United States as of early 2014.
Teaching for Change isn’t included in that count, as it isn’t black-owned, but its multicultural offerings and speaker events have distinguished it from bookstores that stock primarily white authors. Eighty-five percent of its children’s book section is targeted toward children of color, an unprecedented number, considering how few books by authors of color and featuring black and brown kids as protagonists are being published. A study by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin showed that of 3,500 children’s books published in 2014, only 84 were by black authors and just 180 were about black children. The numbers are lower for Latino children’s books, with 59 by Latino authors and just 66 about Latino children.
During my first visit, I bought my 18-month-old a title I’d never seen anywhere else, Sandra K. Pinkney’s “Shades of Black: A Celebration of Our Children,” a board book filled with photographs of black children. We still read it more than two years later. My daughter has committed its oft-repeated line to memory: “I am Black. I am unique.”
Every time I’ve returned to the store, that refrain has echoed, as I’ve run my index finger across all the book spines on a shelf. It’s a feeling I’ve hoped to pass onto my daughter when she’s older. But that hope was dashed last week, when Teaching for Change announced that, after 10 years at Busboys and Poets’ flagship location, it will be changing management this spring, opting to continue its book sales online, to focus its attention on teaching and parent-targeted programs, and to pass on the operation of the bookstore and coordination of future literary events at Busboys to Politics and Prose. Politics and Prose will complete its transformation of the 14th and V space on May 14. Teaching for Change will be keeping its Web store open at tfcbooks.org.
This will be the third Busboys and Poets location where Politics and Prose has established a satellite bookstore residence. According to Politics and Prose co-owner Bradley Graham, the new bookstore will be working closely with Teaching for Change to ensure a smooth transition, acquiring a substantial number of books already in stock at the store, while bringing in additional books from Politics and Prose. “We’re looking forward to carrying on the literary traditions Teaching for Change built over the past 10 years. We want to continue offering multicultural and social justice literature and hosting conversations between authors and community members,” said Graham.
I love Politics and Prose, so I’ll still head over to the 14th and V location after they assume management there. I’ll take my daughter there, too. But it’s hard to imagine that it will feel the same. It’s heartening to know that Politics and Prose will be keeping some of Teaching for Change’s remaining book stock, but it’s difficult not to worry that, over time, the titles carried at the 14th and V location will slowly begin to resemble the titles carried at Politics and Prose’s main store: diverse, but still predominantly white, like the mainstream publishing industry itself. This would be a jarring adjustment for those of us who valued the bookstore as the inverse of traditional publishing’s overwhelmingly white landscape.