Harlem’s Hue-Man Hopes the Past Is Prologue for Black Booksellers

One of the nation's most well-known black bookstores is closing its doors. But it's also trying to write a story that features more than the usual Amazon-killed-us narrative.

By Jasmine Johnson Jul 24, 2012

"Joe! I’m good, how are you?! Joe, I know…yes, I’m closing," intones Marva Allen, owner of Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem, who is closing her brick-and-mortar store this month. "Oh my gawd, I feel like the worst traitor in Harlem, Joe! It’s not easy."

We are sitting in Allen’s office, tucked into the back of the store. She laughs through much of her own response and smiles wide while listening to Joe, a longtime customer, on the other end of the line. She continues, "We’re here till July 31st. Come in and take a look, see if there’s anything you want. Yes, I’ll still order anything you need…I’ll get that in for you. Alright, my darling. Ok sweetie. Goodbye."

Allen finds humor in the sacred. Her cadence, to the ears of a bookstore baby like myself, is familiar. It is an affect that saturates the voices possessed by every woman in my family. Indexed in their speech are years spent perched behind a counter, facilitating conversation, engaging flexibly with whomever showed up. This black bookstore drawl is home to me: it’s what my sisters, cousins, and I grew up with. Our grandparents founded California’s Marcus Books, the oldest black bookstore in the country, in 1960. To them, too, Joe, like nearly all customers, is "darling," "sweetie," or "babe."

Hue-Man is closing its decade-old storefront this month. But as an institution, it is not going anywhere. Or rather, in Allen’s telling, the store is going everywhere. Like the black diaspora about whom most of its books are written, Hue-Man is in motion, evolving.

I figured Allen, after announcing that she will be closing one of the nation’s most widely known black bookstores, would be inundated with requests for her time. But when I ask the gentleman at the counter if I can speak with her, noting that I am writing a piece on black bookstores, and that I came from the Marcus Books family, he simply alerts Marva to my presence, and directs me to the second door on the left. Allen stands from her computer to greet me.

"Tell me, who is Blanche to you?" Blanche Richardson, the owner of Marcus Books Oakland, is my aunt. Allen bellows some, gestures to a chair, and tells me to sit down. "So how are things for Marcus Books?" I grope for words to describe the handsome accomplishment and simultaneous challenge of the store. She saves me: "…as if I don’t know." We laugh.

Hue-Man’s legacy as a literary center–hosting both local and celebrity authors like Toni Morrison, Alicia Keys, Walter Mosley, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–cemented Hue-Man into the fabric of both international black bookselling and local Harlemworld. Nigel’s Juice Bar–which lives inside of Hue-Man and sells fresh smoothies and patties–turned the store into a café, too.

But Hue-Man’s story isn’t necessarily the same Amazon-kills narrative we’ve come to expect when we hear about an independent bookstore closing. Allen makes it clear that when she decided to close the doors, sales had actually been up 37 percent.

That Hue-Man’s sales were climbing did not blind Allen to the fact that competing long term would be challenging with her current business model. Hue-Man’s power as a social institution–a place where bodies convene and relationships are forged–does not alone constitute a sustainable vision for the future. "There is a lot of emotional loyalty," Allen says (she calls this a "solidarity model"), but many "people still make their financial decisions elsewhere. They think you’re just going to be here forever."

The improvement in sales did not itself mean that her model was successful, says Allen, or that the spike in revenue could pay for the changes the business needs to compete. She puts it simply: "if you’re making money, it’s a business; if you’re not, its social work. I’m not interested in social work."

The challenges black bookstores face are no romance. Advancing technology and digitization are increasingly central to the book-buying market; a desire for immediate ownership (even though it is technically only licensing) and quick-click purchasing has made brick-and-mortar stores synonymous with the slow, aging, and nostalgic. "For me, closing was a complete no-brainer," Allen says. "The rent was going to go up, but even if I could have negotiated the same rent, I wouldn’t have done it. The market is costly, the space is inadequate, the vision is backward. This is 10-years-back; we need a 20-years-forward vision."

While Allen does believe that "you vote with your money," and that many are more willing to respond in an immediate crisis than to be regular patrons, she also acknowledges the work her own business needs to do to compete. It is simply "time to flip the script," she says. "It all takes money and that’s what none of us have, right?"

"So, we pause."

As we walk out of her office a slender gentleman approaches Allen. "I just want to tell you: to me, this was much more than a bookstore. You had meetings here; booksignings. The juice bar encouraged us to be healthy. I don’t know how to thank you for 10 years of incredible service to the community. I will miss you more than I can tell." Another woman joins us. She is weeping. Her close friend recently passed away from cancer. They used to meet regularly at Hue-Man. "This place means so much to everyone–and to him, I’m sure."

Allen is pressing her palms against her heart. These kinds of interactions prompt her to stay in her office these days, she explains. "It’s hard when you feel like you’ve disappointed the community." But she knows she has not. "We’ll be back," she tells these two customers. "We’re going not because you haven’t been supportive, but because you deserve more."

For Allen, providing more demands an intelligent use of technology that does not sacrifice interpersonal communion–as she puts it, Hue-Man will be "integrating technology and customer experience in a cultural way." She doesn’t yet have a final plan for doing that, but sketching one requires the time and space that running a brick-and-mortar store forecloses.

Hue-Man will continue to provide while it brainstorms. Its website will be refashioned for e-commerce. It’ll host pop-up shops at various events around town. (The first event is a signing with Dwyane Wade from the Miami Heat.) Its calendar of events will stretch beyond the confines of 2319 Frederick Douglass Boulevard. After all, black books aren’t what’s obsolete, even if the idea that one can have a successful business solely from selling them might be.

As a shape-shifting, traveling social institution, the new Hue-Man might more deeply embody the African diasporic themes it specializes in: transience, improvisation, transformation.

Hue-Man is the stuff that community is made of–a space where we interact with others through the mutual valuation of literacy. The generosity found there characterizes many independent black businesses. They give as far as their means can stretch. Kindness often makes more acute the gaps in inventory. Regardless, we get to know us better by being there.

The support that the store has garnered over the past decade, and the spike that its closing has inspired, has been beautiful, Allen explains. Celebrity authors, many of whom got their start at Hue-Man and institutions like it, have reached out. Pam Grier was the first person to call her. Hill Harper next. Each asked what they could do.

So how can you help? Allen is blunt. "Don’t grieve for me. Come on in here and spend your money; help me liquidate this inventory so I can go rebuild this website."

"Farewell & Welcome Hue-Man Family!" declares the store’s website. And that may be the most profound statement of all. Farewell and welcome. A promise for more trails its goodbye. "Just think of us as on vacation," Allen says.

Jasmine Johnson is finishing her PhD in African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley and will be a Postdoctoral Fellow in African American Studies at Northwestern University in the fall. She writes about diaspora, performance, gender, and black entrepreneurship.