When Dawud Hakim opened a bookshop in Philadelphia in 1959 devoted entirely to African-American literature, it seemed that very few Americans were interested in the books he was trying to sell.
“He got a rude awakening because, back in the day, people weren’t buying books by Black people, for Black people," said his daughter Yvonne Blake, who runs Hakim's Bookstore today.
But since the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, Blake said she's watched in amazement as anti-racist titles have begun to dominate best-seller lists, with many non-Black Americans seeking to educate themselves on how to be better allies to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I am amazed that it has taken this long for white America to realize we were not making all these stories up,” she said.
But even as books about anti-racism are flying off the shelves, the proceeds are being funneled primarily through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other large retailers, with titles such as "How to Be Anti-Racist," "Stamped from the Beginning" and "The New Jim Crow" topping best-seller lists on Amazon last month.
From February through April of this year, the number of small business owners dropped by about 20%, meaning about one out of five small businesses closed their doors. But in the same amount of time, a staggering 40% of Black-owned businesses owners said they were not working, according to an analysis from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
It’s a conundrum that has inspired countless social media posts encouraging people to shop at Black-owned businesses. On July 7, a social media campaign called #BlackOutDay2020 is encouraging 1.5 million people to avoid buying anything online or in-store unless it's from a Black-owned business.
Now, a newly-launched website called the Racial Justice Bookshelf makes it much easier to skip Amazon and spend money directly with Black-owned bookstores instead. The site was created by Leah Rajaratnam, a 29-year old who works in advertising who realized that despite many well-intentioned lists circulating on social media, there was no central repository for online orders.
Instead, purchasing from a Black-owned bookstore often meant navigating each individual bookstore's website, or calling the store directly to place orders. Rajaratnam wanted to create something akin to Amazon, but directed only to Black-owned bookstores – a tool for well-meaning but busy people who want their dollar to go further.
"I wanted to catch that second layer of people who won’t take those extra steps," she said. She recruited fellow allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, Maya Man and John Soat, to help turn what began as a humble Google spreadsheet into a website that allows you to buy from about 90 Black-owned bookstores in a few clicks.
“It's great that books about racial justice are hitting the bestseller list, but real change won’t happen until people start to do the work in their own lives and communities to mend racial inequality,” Rajaratnam said. “Buying these books directly from Black entrepreneurs who’ve often built their careers around promoting diverse voices and stories is a good start.”
The site was launched in June and already has had 7,500 visitors, Rajaratnam said. She updates the site weekly to direct would-be buyers to stores that have titles in stock, and she frequently checks in with the proprietors to solicit feedback and ensure the site is still helpful. The work is volunteer, and Rajaratnam does not take a cut of the proceeds.
Jeannine A. Cook, shopkeeper of Harriett’s Bookshop in Philadelphia, said the demand for anti-racist literature in recent weeks has been almost overwhelming. She said she often has backorders while waiting for more books to be physically printed and shipped.
Cook, who was denied funding through the federal pandemic relief package called the Paycheck Protection Program, said that although much of her support is local, the majority of her sales recently have been online.
Since the death of George Floyd, she said, “people protested with books … I think there is something really amazing about that.” But ultimately, she said, it’s about “making sure you are putting your money where your mouth is.”
For many Black booksellers, it’s encouraging to see non-Black Americans seeking to educate themselves about topics like systemic racism, implicit bias and historical injustices. At the same time, they say it’s an education that’s long overdue.
“We’ve been in business for 61 years and nothing like this has ever happened,” said Blake. She wishes her father Dawud, who founded the bookstore and passed away in 2013, were alive to see the titles he cherished in such high demand. “He just really got no support from the beginning … because what he was doing was so different,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed at the response from people because it vindicates everything that he fought for.”