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Mobtown Beat

Selling Up

Nation’s Largest African-American Bookstore Chain To Open in Security Square Mall

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 8/17/2005

It’s Saturday afternoon at the busy Centre at Forestville mall in Prince George’s County, and business at Karibu Books is brisk. A brightly lit and well-merchandised storefront beckons customers, and titles addressing various facets of the black experience in America grace the shelves. A copy of Michael Eric Dyson’s Is Bill Cosby Right?, for example, sits opposite Karrine Steffans’ Confessions of a Video Vixen, a biography about a female hip-hop video actress. A cashier answers the phone brightly with the store’s slogan: “Karibu—African books 365 days a year, by and about African people.”

Temple Hills-based Karibu Books, whose name means “welcome” in Swahili, is the nation’s largest black-oriented bookstore chain, operating four stores in P.G. County and one in Arlington, Va. In just a few weeks, Karibu will make its debut in the Baltimore area when it opens its sixth store at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn.

Last year, City Paper reported on the closure of Sibanye (“A New Chapter,” Mobtown Beat, Jan. 7, 2004), an independent black bookstore that had been serving Northwest Baltimore for nine years. Sibanye closed its doors in late 2003 amid declining sales and a tough economy for independent booksellers. The closure sparked local and national discussion about the paradoxical nature of the African-American bookstore market: Though the market for black books has been steadily growing, the stores that sell them have been closing up shop all over the country, even in cities with significant black populations. For example, Baltimore lost Sibanye in 2003, Detroit lost Apple Books in 2001, and Washington saw the closure of SisterSpace and Books last year. Yet in 2003 blacks spent $326 million on books, up from $258 million in 1996, according to Target Market News, a company that tracks trends in the black consumer market.

Ken Smikle, president of Target Market News, says that locations with high rents and low pedestrian traffic force many black bookstores to fail despite the growing interest in African-American literature. In addition, he says, “growing competition from chain bookstores and the internet makes it very difficult [for these stores] to survive.”

Unlike the now-defunct stores mentioned above, Karibu Books has managed to steadily grow since it was founded 12 years ago. The store carries 8,000 titles and boasts annual sales of several million, and its owners envision its future as being the black answer to bookselling giant Barnes and Noble.

Karibu was launched in 1992 by co-owners Simba Sana and Brother Yao (whose real name is Hoke Glover). The two had $500 in startup money and began a mobile book-vending operation that sold to patrons near Bowie State and Howard universities. To keep the newborn endeavor afloat and prepare for their future, the two agreed to pocket only 8 percent of their gross sales and pledged another 8 percent to a savings fund for expansion. In 1993, Yao and Sana brought the mobile store indoors, opening a kiosk in the Mall at Prince George’s in Hyattsville and a pushcart in the now-shuttered Landover Mall. The kiosk became a full-fledged store in 1994, and the pushcart followed suit in 1997. Yao attributes the stores’ early success to what he calls the “black renaissance in literature” that took place in the early to mid-’90s.

“You had Terry McMillan, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison on the New York Times best-sellers list at the same time,” Yao says. As the demand for black books grew, Karibu responded, adding stores in Bowie Town Center, the Centre at Forestville, Iverson Mall, and Pentagon City Mall (which opened when Landover Mall closed in 2002), the first Karibu store not located in a predominantly black mall.

Sana and Yao say they see Karibu Books as a cultural institution as much as an entrepreneurial effort—they say it’s a one-stop shop where books by and about black people can be found—and they think that has contributed to the stores’ popularity and success.

“When you come into Karibu you can be yourself,” Sana says. “If you’re [a black] conservative, homosexual, radical, or a conspiracy theorist—there’s a section that speaks to you.”

And as Karibu has grown, so has its purchasing power with publishers, which gives the company a leg up on smaller black bookstores. Whereas smaller stores purchase limited amounts of titles for a single location, Karibu has a centralized ordering process through which it can order in bulk for all of its stores at once. The owners say their ordering system could handle as many as 100 bookstores nationwide, a goal they hope to achieve. And Yao says planning for the business’ expansion has helped Karibu Books thrive while other independent stores have perished.

“Mom-and-pop or smaller businesses have difficulty [expanding] because their business exists in the head of the owner,” Yao says. “They do so many job functions that getting someone else involved in the process is very difficult if the structure only exists in their head.”

Another element of the stores’ success has likely been in the strategic placement of its retail outlets. Prince George’s County, which is 62.7 percent African-American, boasts a median income of $62,467—a built-in market with disposable income.

“Simba has always been very adamant about [putting our stores] in places that African Americans frequent,” Yao says. “[Our] people do a lot of hanging out in the mall, even when they don’t need to shop.”

Karibu will be reaching for a similar demographic at its new Baltimore location, but the numbers may present a bit more of a challenge than those in Prince George’s. Woodlawn, in western Baltimore County, has a 51.5 percent African-American population with a median family income of $54,490, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Baltimore City is 64.34 percent African-American, but the median family income is only $35,438.

And other local black booksellers, like Sibanye, have found that it can be a struggle to make a go of it. The city currently is home to about five bookstores that focus on the African-American market, and they report ups and downs in business. But despite the introduction of a new and more powerful competitor to their market, they do not express significant concern that Karibu will hurt business for mom-and-pop bookshops. Sepia, Sand, and Sable, at Reisterstown Road Plaza in Northwest Baltimore, is only six miles from Security Square Mall. Owner Clara Anthony says that, while it’s possible that Karibu Books’ presence could impact business, its presence may actually be a boon to Baltimore’s African-American book market.

“I think realistically whenever any store opens that store expects to get customers,” she says. “And they might expand the customer base [for all of us], or they might draw from the existing customer base.”

Richard Holland, co-owner (with best-selling author Carl Webber) of Mondawmin Mall’s Urban Knowledge bookstore, agrees.

“It offers the population more alternatives and more choices,” he says. “If we
can generate a greater interest in reading, that will spill over into the greater population and bring some enlightenment into the community, then we’ve accomplished our goal.”

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