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Barnes & Noble Says No to Harlem USA

By Irina Slutsky

Getting corporate Americaís approval has been hard for Harlem. It took years to persuade Starbucks, Blockbuster and Duane Reade to open stores in the most famous African-American community in the country and to join the booming retail commerce on Harlemís main drag, 125th Street. Now that they are there, the retailers are making profits far beyond projections. But though mainstream retailers now know they can peddle coffee, rent videos and fill prescriptions, there is one type of merchandise they cannot see selling in Harlem: books.

After evaluating Harlem USA, the multimillion-dollar mall built in partnership with Disney and Magic Johnson Theaters, as a possible location for its next store in New York, Barnes & Noble decided not to sign a lease. "It is not the right site for us," said Deborah Williams, director of media services at Barnes & Noble who visited the complex. When pressed for an explanation, she said, "It did not make financial sense."

Williams, who declined to discuss the matter furtherany further on the phone and asked that any other questions be faxed to her, wrote in a response: "We have been looking at Harlem for several years". We are continuing our search for the best property which is also economically feasible for us."

Barnes & Noble opened its newest store in the Bronx and the next store will be opened on Court Street in Brooklyn, making it the second Brooklyn location after Park Slope. Referring to the Bronx store, Williams wrote, "The location we have in the Bronx is ideal - it is off the highway, it is located in a mall with other retailers." She did not comment on the fact that Harlem fits these very criteria. Harlem USA is a mall with Old Navy, The Disney Store, HMV Music, and a Modellís sports apparel shop, all of them high-level corporate retailers. Harlem USA is also just five blocks from the Hudson River Parkway and four blocks from Broadway. Columbia University is nine blocks south of the mall, with the next closest Barnes & Nobles location on 82nd Street - 34 blocks away from the school.

Barnes & Nobleís decision to pass up Harlem USA has elicited a strong reaction from Harlem residents, politicians, educators and business leaders. Most think that the decision was based on an assumption that Harlem is not a market for mainstream booksellers and on a stereotype that black people do not read. They feel that the misconceptions about black people as non-readers are controlling the marketplace and keeping a necessary social and educational resource out of Harlem.

"They never examine anything," said Una Mulzac, the owner of Liberation Books, referring to the fact that Barnes & Noble did not even approach her to discuss book sales in Harlem. "Thatís how they make lies."

Since 1967, Una Mulzac has been running Liberation Books, a tiny bookstore on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 131st Street that specializes in African and African-American subjects and authors. You will not find "The Great Gatsby" or any Charles Dickens here. But you will find "Blueprint for Black Power" by Amos N. Wilson, "Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys" by Jawanza Kujufu, and "Ella Fitzgerald: For the Record" by Geoffrey Mark Fidelman. You will also find a motto that has lasted for over three decades: "If you donít know - learn. If you do know - teach."

Other small bookstores besides Liberation have come and gone. These smaller specialized shops often did not carry childrenís books nor did they carry mainstream magazines like Time and Newsweek, English and foreign-language dictionaries, travel guides, cookbooks or reference books.

"There is a serious need for a high-level superbookstore in Harlem, not just a hole-in-the-wall operation," said Dennis Walcott, president of the New York Urban League. He said he felt that part of the reason the chain bookstores are not coming to Harlem is because of something he calls "mental red-lining."

"I find it insulting as an educated African-American living in Harlem," said Orlando Golber, 46, principal of Rice High School, in reference to Barnes & Nobleís decision. "I had thought that in all the development, there would be a free-standing bookstore - like the Starbucks, or an outlet in the mall."

Golber said he spent more than $150 on books in his last trip to the Barnes & Noble at Lincoln Center. This year, he has also purchased books worth more than $700 for his school. Such books as "Night" by Elie Wiesel, "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, and "1984" by George Orwell have been ordered by the school through Barnes & Noble. "Perhaps we can cut them out and go straight to the publisher," Golber said, thinking aloud.

Of Barnes & Nobleís statement that Harlem is not "financially viable," Golber said that is a code phrase that simply reinforces racial stereotypes. "They think people in Harlem wonít read," said Golber. "Theyíre wrong."

Golber pointed out that historically, the only businesses in Harlem that banks would finance were funeral parlors, liquor stores and self-service laundries. "Because the assumption is that black people love to drink and of course they are killing each other, so the banks would get big return on their investments," Golber said. He thinks that Barnes & Nobleís decision is based on the same kind of "blatant racism" of the past.

The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone initially approached Barnes & Noble about joining the other mainstream retailers in Harlem USA. The mall is part of Harlemís much-touted second Renaissance as the center of cultural, economic and political activity for African-Americans.

"They were cordial but they were not interested," said Jim Simmons of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, discussing Barnes & Nobleís reaction to joining Harlem USA. Simmons considers it part of his job as senior vice president of business investment to help businesses overcome any qualms they may have about opening in Harlem, but Barnes & Noble could not be persuaded. Critical hurdles for many businesses include issues of public safety and distance from downtown, Simmons said. Some businesses - like Starbucks and Duane Reade - overcame their doubts. Others - like Kinkoís and Barnes & Noble - have not.

"Harlem is not going to have a major bookstore," Simmons said. The Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone has given up on Barnes & Noble and will not pursue any more conversations with them, he said.

"I think there is an opportunity for a bookseller in Harlem," said Simmons. With that in mind and after negotiations with Barnes & Noble broke down, the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone approached Clara Villarosa in November 1998. Villarosa, 69, is the owner of Hue Man Books, a successful African-American bookstore that has been thriving in Denver for more than 18 years. Though she sold the Denver store last November, Villarosa still owns the Hue Man name outside of Colorado and is free to open a new store in New York. She responded to the proposal with great interest as well as caution.

"Iím cautious because no one else wants to do it," Villarosa said. "Anyone would be cautious opening a bookstore right now because of Amazon.com. But I believe it can be successful." Villarosa, who calls Barnes & Noble a "predator" instead of "competitor," has not yet signed a lease with Harlem USA, but is exploring the possibility and looking for investors. She is willing to say that more than likely, there will be a Hue Man bookstore in Harlem USA by July or August of this year.

"Based on my experience, African-Americans do purchase books," Villarosa said. "The assumption is that they donít." She said that the assumption is that "lower-income blacks arenít as educated or as sophisticated, that they are inferior. Itís a prejudice."

She also explained the readiness of other types of mainstream retailers - such as Disney, HMV and Modellís - to go into the mall. "You donít have to be literate to buy a pair of Nikeís or a CD," said Villarosa.

Villarosa is certain that a specialty bookstore is exactly what Harlem USA needs. "You need to understand your marketplace," Villarosa said. And, according to her experience, African-Americans buy books by black authors and about black subjects. She thinks she would get very little demand for any other type of book. Depending on space availability, she said she may allocate as much as 20 percent of the store space to non-ethnic books such as New York Times bestsellers, computer, business, and self-help books. "If I try to sell books by white authors, Iíll go out of business," Villarosa said. For her, the bookstore is an extension of the community. "People are looking for books that represent their culture. You have to look at whoís walking up and down the streets," said Villarosa.

Certainly, she is not the only one who is paying attention to foot traffic in Harlem. Street booksellers are a constant presence on 125th Street and Harlem residentsí only source of books on the busy thoroughfare. Often, on good weather days, as many as five tables of books are set up between St. Nicholas and Lenox Avenues, a distance of four blocks. They share the sidewalk with vendors of incense, oils, Afro-centric prints and bootleg CDís. If nothing else, these vendors are visible proof that Harlem residents purchase and read books on a daily basis.

"I have sold up to 30 books in one day," said Sidi Ibrahima. The 30-year-old African, who moved to the United States from Germany, has been selling books in Harlem for one year. Ibrahima positioned his book table in front of the Disney store of Harlem USA, the mall that Barnes & Noble decided would not be a good market for books. He said he earns $300 to $800 per month selling books and supplements his income by driving a livery cab at night.

The booksellers support Villarosaís idea that Harlem is a specialized market. "The white books - no one will buy them," said Omar Diakite, a 33-year-old immigrant from Mali in his third year of selling books on 125th Street, also known as Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. As proof, he digs up several books by white authors heís been carrying around in his crates for several years, including "Monica Speaks" by Andrew Morton and "Iacoca: An Autobiography." He has sold only one copy of "Monica Speaks" and none of "Iacoca." "I always lose money on white authors," said Diakite.

Other people who work directly with books in Harlem disagree that it is a specialized market. "We underscore the African-American experience in our collection, but people come in for everything," said Jerome Hammond, 50, head librarian at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library on 124th Street and Lenox Avenue. By everything, Hammond means bestsellers, computer books, job search books. He points to a bookcase displaying the libraryís most popular titles - Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Michael Chrichton and Harry Potter books fill the shelves just like at any other location in New York City. He believes that a general service bookstore would "fill a great need" in Harlem.

Michael Dewitt, a 17-year-old student at Rice High School, thinks it would be a mistake to have an all-black bookstore in Harlem. "If a bookstore in a white neighborhood sold books by white authors only, it would be considered discrimination," Dewitt said. His classmate, Philip Tobias,17, agreed: "People donít want to be limited to one thing."

Dewitt and Tobias have both shopped at Barnes & Noble on West 82nd Street. They go there because of the large selection of books and because they think of Barnes & Noble as a household name. They both think that Barnes & Noble could sell books in Harlem. Dewitt, who is entering John Jay College this fall to study criminology, said, "Maybe theyíre not coming because they think that all these black people are going to rob their store."

At the end of the conversation, the students both responded with frustration. "We donít want them here if they donít want to be here," Tobias said.

Harlem Assemblyman Keith Wright said Barnes & Noble could make money in Harlem, underlining that it would be the only full-service bookstore in the neighborhood. "In terms of dollars and cents, $200 million is spent annually on 125th Street, according to Chamber of Commerce figures," Wright said. "It is economic ignorance."

He was angry about the fact that a mainstream bookstore will not be located in the center of black intellectualism in America. "If they donít want to come, the hell with them," Wright said. Geofrey Eaton, chief of staff for council member Philip Reid, overheard Wrightís comments and echoed the anger inherent in almost everyoneís response to Barnes & Nobleís decision. "Langston Hughes would turn over in his grave," Eaton said.

Walter Edwards, president of the Harlem Business Alliance, thinks that Barnes & Nobleís decision makes a statement about the Harlem community. "By not coming in, they are implying that we are ignorant people that have no need for the knowledge that books hold," Edwards said.

Kiwana Atkins, co-chairperson of the Parentsí Organization at the John A. Reisenbach Charter School, said she is always buying books for her daughter. "I go down to the Barnes & Noble on 23rd Street," Atkins said. She buys books for herself from the independent booksellers on 125th Street.

Karolyn Belcher, 31, assistant director of the Reisenbach School, thinks that Barnes & Noble "did not do their research well. It is a missed opportunity for them."

Sharon Howard, acquisitions librarian at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library, also sees a need for a local comprehensive store. When asked which bookstores she shops at in Harlem, her response was, "There arenít any."

Howard has to go outside the community where she works and lives to purchase books. "I have bought books both for Schomburg and for personal use at Barnes & Noble," Howard said. The night before she was interviewed for this story, Howard had asked a friend to stop by Barnes & Noble and buy a book for her.

Howard also adds that she has problems finding not only books, but other items she likes such as wine, fresh fruits and vegetables and flowers.

"Itís just prejudice and ignorance," Howard said of the reason she thinks big book chains that are passing up Harlem. "People assume that black people donít read."