By Us, for Us: Why WOC-Owned Bookstores Must Survive
When this pandemic is over, we hope to reopen our doors and offer comfort and sanctuary to our communities—as women of color so often have.
When I founded Duende District in 2017, shortly after Donald Trump was inaugurated, I knew people of color needed welcoming literary spaces featuring beautiful books that were by and for us. I also wanted the store to be financially and physically accessible, in a nod to my family’s immigrant roots—mobile, in fact, much like the food carts/stands of many Central American immigrants, though not vehicle-based. That year, I incubated the store at a six-week long art festival, set up a pop-up at the now-closed La Mano coffee shop, and partnered with the city of Hyattsville, Maryland throughout Latinx Heritage Month.
Now, Duende District has two main models, one hand feeding the other. In Washington, DC, where I’m based, rent for even the smallest spaces is prohibitive, so using the long-term partnered vendor boutique store model enables me to set up in places that would reach more affluent customers. At the same time, by partnering with local nonprofits, we’re able to establish pop-ups in other areas with large communities of color—especially those with sizable immigrant populations—that don’t have equal access to affordable newbooks or literary programming.
Bookstores like ours have long been linchpins of our communities, a refuge and a comfort. The past few years have seen a glorious uprising of WOC-owned book retailers. Now, the independent bookstore industry is poised on yet another precipice, again forced to redefine who we are and how we serve our readers. The sacrifices Black and Brown women make to open and sustain bookstores and small businesses centering and serving our communities are all the more stark.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many people of color woke up every day in a world that could be turned upside-down. Our communities are so often the ones to suffer most, experience disasters hardest, go hungry first, end up in detention centers and jails for the barest reason (or no reason at all). Many of us already knew what it was to go through life holding our breath. And for us, even bookstores have not always been sanctuaries.
By the fall of 2016, after sixteen years as a bookseller in New Mexico, New York City, and Washington, DC, others’ disrespect of my cultural identity had become a painful and exposed nerve. Years of microaggressions or outright racism by white booksellers, customers, authors, publicists, even sales reps, had scraped me raw, until all it took was one offhand statement dismissing minorities’ voices by one of my bosses and I was suddenly gripped by an anger so intense, it changed me forever. I finally, clearly saw how no bookstore I’d ever stepped inside, let alone worked in, was a truly welcoming space for people of color.
The independent bookstore industry is poised on yet another precipice.
With this realization came a flood of important questions: Why did none of the Black and Brown booksellers on my team ever advance to positions of senior management, book buying, or event planning? Why was I in tears on the book floor I managed with a fellow Latinx, who asked me, Where are the books about us? Where areourbookstores?
Black and Brown women so often find ways to build and create when everything has been taken from us, continuing to burn when only ashes lay beneath our feet. We carry generations of trauma and grief, passed from our mothers and grandmothers, as well as our own, and still we sing. In my work as a bookstore founder, as well as my work with the American Booksellers Association, I’ve met many fellow women of color working to build thriving book businesses—stores and communities where our families, children, and friends can see themselves reflected and celebrated. This, despite the fact that most of us do not have much money or generational wealth or privilege; banks often refuse us loans; and we labor with staggering debts, crowdfunding for start-up and sustaining funds—sometimes multiple times.
Noëlle Santos was inspired to leave behind the financial security she’d enjoyed as a Human Resources director to ignite a local literary movement, building a new bookstore that truly reflected her beloved Bronx community after Barnes & Noble closed the last remaining bookstore there. After nearly five years of backbreaking work, including exhaustively promoting a huge crowdfunding campaign, teaching herself how to operate a retail book business via pop-ups, and building a nationally recognized brand, Santos opened The Lit. Bar in 2019. The heartbreak of having to shutter during the COVID-19 pandemic might keep others down, but Noëlle is one of the strongest, most resilient people I have ever had the honor to know: unapologetically herself, proudly Boricua Afro-Latinx from the Bronx, a true visionary who will help lead our industry into the future, whatever it may be.
Many women of color are working to build thriving book businesses where our families, children, and friends can see themselves reflected and celebrated.
I can think of so many other examples: In Kokomo, Indiana in 2016, former teacher DeAndra Beard opened Bind Café and Beyond Barcodes Bookstore, a multicultural bookstore, as an extension of her language learning center. Miriam Chan of Santa Monica, California, has worked tirelessly since 2017 to turn her feminist pop-up bookstore, The Lev, into a permanent location. Maceo Cabrera Estevez has expanded her subscription box specializing in Spanish-language children’s titles to her own partnered pop-up. Veronica Liu, of Word Up Community Bookshopin Washington Heights, is fighting to give back to her immigrant-heavy community—including starting a broad campaign to promote the US Census.
And in my home state of New Mexico, Denise Chávez, a writer and owner of Casa Camino Real Book Store & Art Gallery, has been working to provide Spanish-language books to migrant families in shelters on both sides of the border, while also trying to force our nation to confront the horrifying reality of the humanitarian crisis caused by our government. Her message, sent to the American Booksellers Association’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee on March 19: “It is a terrible time, and yet it is a time of hope and love. Remember that we are united in the power of art, culture, and literature. We KNOW the power of books to save lives.”
Since founding Duende District, I’ve partnered with many other BIPOC-owned businesses and bookstores, each one essential and unique. Now these businesses all face the same excruciating decisions: laying off most of their staff; furloughing employees who live paycheck to paycheck; being unable to provide health insurance; negotiating desperately with landlords and vendors they cannot pay.
This health emergency and the resulting economic fallout has the potential to impact BIPOC-owned and -focused bookstores even more than others, because so many of our customers are living the same paycheck-to-paycheck life we are. While more affluent readers can afford to shop online if their bookstores are able to offer that option, and some bookstores are fighting to be considered “essential” in order to stay in operation, so many of our gente are essential and have to go to work—often for minimum wage—and are risking their health and lives to stock food, work registers, and deliver goods. Among our customers are hourly wage workers, single working parents, undocumented immigrants who will not receive any financial help from coronavirus relief legislation. Sometimes it makes us wonder how we can, in good conscience, ask our people to buy books when many of them are terrified of not being able to put food on the table.
This health emergency and the resulting economic fallout has the potential to impact BIPOC-owned stores even more than others.
Here in DC, we have a Duende District pop-up in the Latinx-owned Dio Wine Bar, which had to close their doors when one of their team members got sick—but the owners have since returned, reinventing their business. (If you’re in DC and place an order online, you can send a message if you’d like to add a book to your order.)
Another partnership, one of our most successful, was with Simone Jacobson and her mother, Jocelyn Law-Yone: an ever-evolving six shelves of books for adults and children across the Asian diaspora in their now-closed bodega/eatery, Toli Moli, in DC’s Union Market. Last fall, these two women opened their award-winning Burmese restaurant, Thamee, achieving a lifelong dream. Having to close during the pandemic is a gut shot, but as Simone said to me the other day, they are strong; they will persevere.
I know she’s right. We are strong. We will persevere. And it is by supporting one another, as we always have, that we, our customers and our communities, will survive. In this knowledge and hope we will endeavor to get through yet another calamitous period together—as women of color so often have—so we can reopen our doors and offer sanctuary to our communities once more.
Angela Maria Spring is the owner ofDuende District, a pop-up boutique bookstore by and for people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an M.F.A. in writing from Sarah Lawrence College, reviews for Kirkus and Tor.com, and has poetry forthcoming in Radar Poetry, Pilgrimage, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and Third Wednesday. You can find her on Twitter at @BurquenaBoricua or at duendedistrict.com.