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Checking In With Black Bookstores Nearly A Year After 2020's Book Boom On Racism

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

During last summer's protests for racial justice, throngs of people filled the streets and bookstores. Titles about white privilege and anti-racism were in such high demand, some were on back order for months. Sales at Black-owned bookstores surged. And so a year after George Floyd's death, we've called up three Black bookstore owners to talk about whether people have stayed engaged. VaLinda Miller owns Turning Page Bookshop in Goose Creek, S.C., La'Nae Robinson's store in Kansas City, Mo., is called Bliss Books & Wine and Derrick Young is co-owner of MahoganyBooks here in Washington, D.C. Good to have all three of you here.

VALINDA MILLER: Thank you.

LA'NAE ROBINSON: Thank you.

DERRICK YOUNG: Thanks for having us. We appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: Start by taking us back to last summer. What was it like for you all?

MILLER: This is VaLinda in South Carolina. It was crazy and extremely overwhelming. And I had to hire some more staff members just to mail out the books.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Derrick, La'Nae, was that your experience, too?

YOUNG: Yeah. I wasn't quite sure what we were seeing at first and how long it would last. But we got to the point really, really quickly where we knew we had to ramp up capacity immediately to be able to manage all of the incoming orders we had learned.

SHAPIRO: La'Nae, how big a jump are we talking about here? Like, what was the spike?

ROBINSON: Oh, my gosh. I can't even pull a number. It was very overwhelming. We - it was great at first. I was like, oh, this is wonderful.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ROBINSON: And the orders kept pouring in and pouring in. It was just up all night trying to be the one to grab the batch that's coming in.

SHAPIRO: And can you describe who the new customers tended to be and the kinds of conversations you were having with them? I mean, I know there were a lot of online orders, but when people showed up in person, like, describe that experience.

YOUNG: You know, so for us, it's been pretty interesting, and we've been noticing it. We definitely found that there were - we have more white customers coming to our web store to purchase books. We were shipping to states that we typically hadn't shipped to in the past. But, you know, when we reopened the store, we noticed that the traffic that we were seeing definitely had more white customers coming into southeast D.C. to shop our store.

SHAPIRO: Southeast is a majority Black neighborhood...

YOUNG: It is.

SHAPIRO: ...Where your store is based. Yeah.

YOUNG: Ninety-four percent Black. Yup.

SHAPIRO: VaLinda? La'Nae?

MILLER: Well, my customers were mostly white. And I was surprised. I got so many people from Brazil and Venezuela, but the majority of the customers were white. The surge was unbelievable.

SHAPIRO: And La'Nae, what were the kinds of conversations you were having with new customers in Kansas City?

ROBINSON: They were forming some of their own book clubs and reading groups, and they were looking for recommendations. They wanted us to help facilitate some of them. A lot along the lines of, well, I didn't know. I really didn't understand everything that was going on. But now that I do know, how do I learn more and what do I do with the information that I have now?

SHAPIRO: And did you all feel like people were really invested in doing the work or were there people who seemed to want to check a box? Like, I bought an anti-racist book title and that's what I needed to do and now I've done it, you know what I mean?

YOUNG: We saw a little bit of both, but we were definitely seeing more people who seemed like they were really willing to do the work. We see people who are not just picking up the notable bestsellers like "White Fragility," we see people who are coming in to buy books like "Chocolate City For Us" (ph) or "Medical Apartheid," books that are a little bit more specific and dealing with issues that we've been talking about for a long time.

MILLER: I would have to agree with Derrick. We did get a lot of people that come in and wanted to really learn about our history and about the books that we had. And I took that advantage and showed them and sold to them books that were produced and made in the '50s, '60s and '70s. I mean, the classics - Baldwin and Naylor and Toni Morrison. So I was able to get them to get both types of books, not just "White Fragility."

SHAPIRO: Wow. La'Nae?

ROBINSON: I would agree with that. It allowed us to pull them in. So even though they were maybe initially coming in to check the box, I think we were able to bring them in and keep them in. And we're still having ongoing conversations and - where we've established that relationship where I think that they want to hang around for a little bit longer.

SHAPIRO: Oh, that's so interesting. VaLinda, Derrick, have you both seen the same thing, that the people who showed up a year ago have stuck around?

YOUNG: Yes. What's really been interesting is a number of corporations who are purchasing from us are coming back not just to purchase books around Black people, but we now have people who are purchasing books specifically about women issues, about LGBTQ issues. So, you know, it is really good to see that people are sticking around.

SHAPIRO: That's so good to hear. VaLinda, what's your experience been?

MILLER: When they came into my store and said, OK, my wife told me I had to come in...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MILLER: ...Here and buy a book by a Black bookstore, and I said, well, why are you buying that book? I want you to buy Zane Grey. I want you to buy Dave Ramsey. I want you to buy Budgetnista. I want you to buy a finance book or a kid's book.

SHAPIRO: I love it. I mean, I'm surprised, but I love that people were honest enough to say, I'm here because my wife told me I had to be. And then you engaged with them and got them somewhere you wanted them to go.

MILLER: Yes (laughter). He comes back now on a regular basis.

SHAPIRO: Oh, you're talking about a specific individual.

MILLER: I'm in South Carolina, so I have a few older white gentlemen that will come in there. And now, we have one that come in there and ask for his Zane Grey. And Derrick was correct. Now, we getting corporations that are coming back to not only buy in bulk, one corporation asked us to provide them a variety of finance books and leadership books.

SHAPIRO: Have you all been building relationships with the customers who first showed up a year ago? I mean, how have those relationships evolved?

YOUNG: For us, we try to do a lot around community and, you know, having conversations on these books. So we've really focused in on doing a lot of the book talks virtually, where we have authors engaging with customers, answering questions.

SHAPIRO: La'Nae, your shop in Kansas City is Bliss Books & Wine, so it is obviously a community hub as much as it is a bookstore. Can you talk about how that community has grown and changed in the last year?

ROBINSON: It's grown a lot. It broadened our outreach, and we were able to bring in customers from all across the country. Just like Derrick said, we were holding the book - the virtual book talks. We do author events online, and we try to focus a lot on some of our local authors in Kansas City as well. And that introduces them to a broader audience, and they get to have conversations that they may otherwise not have.

SHAPIRO: Will you each leave us with one title that you're recommending to customers these days?

YOUNG: Yes. I think I would recommend "The Color Of Law" by Richard Rothstein. It's a fantastic book that gets into the issues of redlining, inequities in the housing market. And that's just one of the issues that we see a lot of when we talk about building wealth.

SHAPIRO: VaLinda? La'Nae?

MILLER: I'm still going to go back to my classic - Dorothy West, "The Wedding."

SHAPIRO: I haven't heard of that one.

MILLER: Yeah. It was during the 1950s in Martha's Vineyard and how a community of African Americans developed and engaged in the community that was at one point almost all white.

SHAPIRO: So this is a fiction title.

MILLER: Yes, it is.

SHAPIRO: La'Nae, you want to close us out with a title?

ROBINSON: Sure. So one book that I would recommend is Stacey Abrams' "Our time Is Now." And that focuses on empowering voters and the future of our democracy and just the importance of our voting rights and making sure our voices are heard.

SHAPIRO: La'Nae Robinson's store in Kansas City, Mo., is called Bliss Books & Wine, VaLinda Miller owns Turning Page Bookshop in Goose Creek, S.C., and Derrick Young is co-owner of MahoganyBooks here in Washington, D.C. Thank you to all three of you.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

MILLER: Thank you.

YOUNG: Thank you. Appreciate it, y'all.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS' "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.