Monday, January 4, 2016

Bookstore notes

Book sale from 2011

[A recent blog entry by Yao Glover led me to reflect on some of my experiences with bookstores and collections.]

Each year for the last few years, I've organized a used book sale on campus. I've mainly been imitating a long-running dream of running a bookstore. Or, maybe I've been trying to figure out ways to repay the debts I owed to black and general used bookstores for my intellectual development over the decades.

I visited my first black bookstore toward the end of my school years in my hometown Jackson, Tennessee. The store didn't last that long, as I recall. But I did have time make some visits, attend poetry readings, and purchase a few books, including David Walker's Appeal and a book of Langston Hughes's poetry.

I don't have any strong memories of visiting used bookstores during my first couple of years at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. Most notably though, I was a frequent visitor to the campus library. There, my knowledge of various authors, especially black authors, grew by leaps and bounds.

My main immersion in bookstores came during the spring semester of 1998, when I participated in an exchange program at New York University. I fortunately met and befriended this independent scholar Donald Garcia, who led me to several different bookstores throughout the city. Black bookstores and general bookstores and the mega-chain, Barnes and Noble.

Mr. Garcia looks through his collection, 2015.

It was after viewing Mr. Garcia's marvelous collection that the idea first came to me to start constructing my own collection. It was during my time in New York that semester that I began constructing the foundation of my collection. I frequented the main used bookstores in State College, Pennsylvania, during my time as a graduate student at Penn State.

There were a couple of used black bookstores when I first moved to St. Louis in the fall of 2003. There was a Border, a Barnes and Noble, and a couple of small general used bookstores. The Borders and all but one of the used black bookstores are gone. The city still has some general, independent booksellers, including Subterranean Books, Left Bank Books, and Dunaway Books. 

My fondest memories of bookstores are the ones I first began visiting in New York in the late 1990s. Many of those stores closed or relocated. Nonetheless, when I started organizing trips of SIUE students to New York in 2009, I made sure visits to bookstores were on our list of activities. Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem was one of the places I always took the students; though the bookstore eventually closed in 2012.
Ben McFall, the "oracle" of Strand's fiction section

I've regularly introduced students to Strand Bookstore. And in recent years, when possible, I introduce them to the Strand's oracle, Ben McFall. The Strand is sometimes the first visit members of my group have made to a used bookstore.  That knowledge, and my longtime interest in bookstores, is what led me to host book sales over the years.  

We hosted one of our first large book sales in 2011. That stands out to me because I remember several students letting me know that they'd never encountered so many black books in one place. With just these books? Well, we really need more black bookstores, I remember thinking.

This semester, I'm organizing projects related to book history in one of my African American literature courses. Among other topics, I'll be discussing black bookstores and special collections.     

A Notebook on bookstores and book collections

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