Inside historic black bookstores’ fight for survival against the COVID-19 pandemic

Inside Marcus Books, the nation’s oldest black-owned bookstore, no one lingers anymore over shelves lined with a diasporic collection of African and African-American history, culture, music and literature

Staffers take phone orders from the safety of their homes. Shoppers keep their distance when darting in and out to pick up purchases. Blanche Richardson, whose parents founded Marcus Books 60 years ago, works alone in the store, putting on a protective mask for curbside deliveries.

Operating in a state of emergency is nothing new for independent black-owned bookstores, which for decades have survived on the margins of the publishing industry. But COVID-19 is posing a new kind of existential threat, Richardson says. Most bookstores have seen a drop in overall book sales even as online sales pick up.

“The pandemic exacerbated the plight of the few remaining black bookstores across the country,” Richardson told.
Black bookselling is a precarious business even in the best of times. Like all independent booksellers, black-owned shops weathered the rise of retail chains like Waldenbooks and B. Dalton in the 1980s and big-box retailers like Barnes & Noble and Borders in the 1990s.
They’ve struggled to loosen’s vice-like grip on people’s wallets. And they’ve run into a potentially business-obliterating threat: gentrification and the unaffordable rents and property taxes that come with it.

Black booksellers were already experimenting with new ways to get more black books in people’s hands, from pop-up stores to internet sales.
Now, to survive COVID-19, they’re getting creative. They’re applying for disaster loans. Those with fledgling e-commerce operations are racing to fortify them. They’re banding together to put on virtual events. And they’re turning to the communities they serve for a helping hand.