I remember my first visit to an independent bookstore. This was after slinking around the library in my small hometown for any gay/lesbian material and coming up with The Well of Loneliness. Walking into Dreams and Swords in downtown Indianapolis, Ind., with my first girlfriend was like walking into an alternate universe. One subtitled “Feminist Family Bookstore.” And for the first time in my life I could walk into a gay and lesbian room, instead of sneaking over to leaf through one or two queer books tucked into a corner of shame. That day I bought my first book by an out lesbian author: Zami by Audre Lorde.
Dreams and Swords went the way of too many independent bookstores over the past 15 years, casualties of the age of Wal-Mart and online retailers who can sell at 20 percent below retail price. Unfortunately, during the beginning of this year, D.C. area communities have to bid farewell to an African-American community institution, Karibu books. As the stores close its doors, African-American writers and audiences (and anybody who appreciates generally excellent writing) are losing a community icon. Karibu was one of the largest Afro-centric bookstores in the U.S., with the slogan ‘‘books by and about African people, 365 days a year.”
Since I’ve never lived in the area, I can’t say that this loss is one that will affect me personally. But reading about it, I do feel a sense of shared loss. I mean, I’m as glad as the next that large chain bookstores have gay and lesbian, African-American, or women’s studies sections, sometimes ones that carry more than erotica and Revolution From Within. But it’s not just those in search of a comfortable community space who suffer. Publishers such as Black Classic Press, who turned to Karibu to help promote its books through signings and community-oriented events, feel such closings.
Like many independent bookstores, Karibu offered a venue to authors who might not have otherwise found a place to house their ideas and writings. Back in 2000, Karibu was the only store that would sell Zane’s first self-published book, The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth.
I’m as guilty as the next rabid fan of ordering my copies of the Harry Potter novels from a chain retailer so I could go stand in line at 10:00 p.m. and take it home at midnight. But stories like these make me want to run down to the local bookstore in my new hometown and buy something, even a newspaper. I’d like to think it still means something to have small niche bookstores. And it’s nice to know that my money might go toward a business whose work practices and policies affirm my community values.