Black-Owned Bookstores Are Thriving, But Need Your Support

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published May 29, 2019 On Greater Greater Washington as part of the Urbanist Journalism Fellowship.

“People don’t live in cities: they live in neighborhoods. Neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are the building blocks of cities. If neighborhoods die, cities die.”
—Monsignor Geno Baroni, from the Anacostia Community Museum’s 
A Right to the City exhibit

Despite fears of the death of bookstores, independent brick-and-mortar shops have seen a surge in popularity across the US over the past decade, including here in DC. But rising property values are taking a toll on some local shops.

Consider the plight of Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe in the Pleasant Plains neighborhood on Georgia Avenue, a few blocks from Howard University. Higher property values in the area have driven up the store’s tax burden to more than $30,000 a year. Now its owners are petitioning the District for relief.

DC has about 20 independent bookstores. A number of them are black-owned, including Charnice Milton Community Bookstore at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia, Loyalty Bookstore in Petworth, Mahogany Books in Anacostia, Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe in Pleasant Plains, and Walls of Books in Park View.

These black-owned bookstores are important to celebrate for many reasons, including the resilience they represent. Besides the historic violence of forbidding enslaved people the right to literacy, would-be black business owners continue to be blocked from accessing capital. Discriminatory finance practices, such as being charged higher rates for bank accounts and mortgages and facing extra scrutiny by potential lenders, disproportionately harm black business owners.

Nonetheless, many of DC’s black-owned bookstores are thriving—notwithstanding rising rents, increased tax burdens, and tight profit margins. Owners say community support is what enables them to remain neighborhood establishments.

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