n epic war rages in Harlem’s business world. Along 125th Street, new chains like Starbucks and Old Navy are conquering commercial space and altering the neighborhood’s cultural landscape, as independent black icons like Lenox Lounge and Apollo Theatre soldier on. At Fredrick Douglass Boulevard is Hue-Man Bookstore, a younger black-owned business that continues to thrive despite gentrification and the poor economy.
“Even when you walk down the street, though it’s changed drastically, there are still remnants of Harlem’s history and its culture,” says Kenneth Allen, Hue-Man’s co-owner and manager. The 10-year-old Hue-man Bookstore hopes to become one of the neighborhood’s historic landmarks. Harlem residents have seen several black-owned bookstores, such as Tree of Life and Liberation, come and go. However, Hue-man remains the largest African-American independent bookstore in the country. Allen, 31, sits by the window front in Hue-man’s small cafe. “Harlem was really one of the first black Meccas that we ever had.”
If Harlem is Mecca, then black-owned Hue-Man is the Quaran. The store specializes in any and every subject within the African Diaspora. Over 24,000 books burrow cover to cover in their specified shelves, street lit aside folklore, Eric Dyson aside Childress. African handmade baskets and jewelery, black dolls and artwork are also peppered throughout the aisles and shelves. A small staff of four, including mother-son owners Kenneth and Marva Allen, manager Micheal Bannerman, and one intern, runs all 4,500 square feet of the space.
“This store is steeped in history…providing quality black literature that allows us to delve back and read so many important things about us and our history,” says regular customer, Yola Walker who just purchased her second copy of Randall Robinson’s novel Makeda. The freckled face of the retired educator glowed, her voice breathy. “It will broaden you. It will enhance you. We need this.”
While the store’s customer base is primarily black, the number of non-black customers coming into the store has not only increased, according to Kenneth, but influenced the types of books ordered for customers as well.
“While we love our people, we want to cater to all types of people,” explains Kenneth. “You’ll find [the books of] David Sedaris here and you’ll find Paul Mooney.”
Like any business, Hue-Man is not without threats. “Declining readership” and the “digital age” are Hue-Man’s kryptonite, says Kenneth.
To combat the decline in readership, Hue-Man offers reading programs for children and adults, as well as workshops.
But the Internet, an aggressive contender for the customers of small booksellers, has proven to be a tougher fix. This year, mega-bookstore chain Borders went out of business, unable to keep up with the industry’s two main competitors Barnes & Noble and Amazon. “Did [online stores] cut into our sales? Of course it did. It cut into every one’s sales,” admits Kenneth. Keeping up with the virtual times, Hue-Man does sell books online, which contributes to about 5 percent of sales. Overall, in spite of the Internet and the recession, the store has seen a 20 percent increase of sales over the last year.
“It comes down to separating yourself based on customer service and marketing,” says Kenneth. “That’s part of the reason why we have 25 [book] signings a month…To keep afloat with the numbers we need.”
Featured authors have included celebrities like President Bill Clinton, rapper T.I., and director/actor Tyler Perry. “Hue-man is considered the cultural hub of the neighborhood,” says Micheal Bannerman, the co-manager who spoke with Maya Angelou on the phone only moments ago and once rung up iconic actress Ruby Dee at the register.
Making use of the store this October afternoon are Necharia, 8, and her sister Anicia, 4. They frequent Hue-Man with their mothers Zecharia Smith and Kimberly Mance, both 28. “It’s a quiet place. I like being in quiet places,” explains Necharia. The Harlem family routinely sets up shop in the cafe for after school breaks.
“It’s giving back to our people,” says Zecharia.
Stay at home mom Kimberly is flanked by a stroller carrying her youngest. “Even if you don’t buy anything, they give you the opportunity to sit down with the book. It’s convenient for us.”
A new customer is in the store too.
“I pass it all the time,” says Tesfa John, 27, an assistant teacher from Harlem. “But this is my first time coming in and purchasing a book.” He holds up rapper Ice-T’s new book, cracking a grin. “And I got a signed copy.”