Friday, March 30, 2018

African American students and bookstores

SIUE student at the Strand, 2016

Between 2009 and 2017, I coordinated 16 different trips to New York City with approximately 150 students (94 from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) and the test from various other universities through a summer program I work with in Texas). Every visit to NYC included a trip to the Strand – a store that sells new and used books. Those bi-annual trips to the Strand were linked to the processes of black book culture, even though the store is not a black bookstore.

African American book culture and the broader realm of African American knowledge have never been limited to only black books and black bookstores. The Strand, founded in 1927, served as one of many places where African American knowledge seekers and book collectors traveled to as they sought out reading materials. Over the last two decades, the numbers of independently owned bookstores in NYC, as well as across the country, have decreased. First the rise of major book chains presented challenges to small, independent bookstores, and then competition brought on by online shopping, especially Amazon, made it extremely difficult for small and large bookstores.

The Strand has persisted, and thus continues to serve as a representation of one of the places that served the interests of all kinds of book lovers, including those of us with African American interests.

The Strand was one of many bookstores I first began visiting 20 years ago when I was an exchange student for a semester at New York University. A book collector, Donald Garcia, served as my guide, introducing me to a variety of bookstores as I began building my personal library.

SIUE student at Strand, 2015

Unfortunately, there are far fewer bookstores in the city today than when I was initially exploring NYC in 1998. Still, when I had the opportunity to take students to New York and serve as their guide, I did what Mr. Garcia did for me: I introduced them to the Strand.

When my students visited the Strand over the last several years, they regularly noted that the bookstore is an overwhelming experience. They really enjoy it, but they have never been in such a small, crowded place with so many books. They are not sure where to start or how to identify a particular section, and at the same time, they are excited by all the possibilities, all of which contributed to the feelings of being overwhelmed.

SIUE student checking out the Black Studies section at the Strand, 2017

The most common starting point for students unsure of where to go first in the Strand is the African American section also known as “the Black Studies” section. There, they look through book titles for familiar names, and then they began branching out to other sections on the first floor, before venturing off to the basement, the second floor, and to the third floor, where the rare books are kept.

Black men, personal libraries, and Black Book Culture
Black book culture
A Notebook on Book History
A Notebook on bookstores and book collections

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