Guest Blog: In Search of a Bookstore…
Ebony, Jr.! Way to get this reader nostalgic! I started this blog as a 54-year-old woman enjoying the prose and the images—and then suddenly, I was back on Addison Street near 54th, feeling the shiny pages, sitting on the floor of a three-room apartment and traveling into the black-and-white world of Ebony and the luxurious color of National Geographic. Too old for Ebony, Jr. myself, but as a teenager, I thought it was adorable.
By that time, I was in the library reading Baldwin, slowly and carefully, to take in every drop of fury. I still see youngsters eating up books as I imagine Nia did. Tree House Books on Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia comes to mind, Black Writers Museum in Germantown, and Mighty Writers in South Philly. In all of these places, as in several branches of the Free Library, I’ve felt that delighted absorption just humming: beautiful children exploring the world through words and images, sharing or reading alone, looking for help from the whole wide world on how to grow up despite everything that is thrown at them. – Lorene
by Nia Ngina Meeks
I’m a black woman writer in search of a bookstore to love with unadulterated abandon.
It is a passion, an affair that once swelled and then slipped away. Memories of its touch, its smell, linger, and nearly haunt, casting current suitors for my book-loving heart in unrequited light.
As much as I enjoyed sipping iced coffee and free air conditioning in Borders, the demise of the chain didn’t strike me as hard as when those neighborhood Timbuktus boarded up their doors and windows.
Those were heady days of incense-and-oil scented gathering spots, where liberation and literature melded. The air was collegial and communal, free from suspicions of thievery or malice. Every adult felt like a caretaker, a distant aunt or uncle who would ask about your studies and smile their encouragement at a little browngirl in glasses reading intently.
There was warmth in the colorful posters celebrating authors and readings, faces that looked like mine.
And the rows of books! From my vantage, they appeared to touch the sky, with the width of the horizon.
Claude McKay boogied with Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka. Alex Haley arm wrestled W.E.B. DuBois and Paule Marshall for shelf space. Success beamed from the covers of Essence and Ebony – and my favorite, Ebony Jr. Genre-specific and age appropriate, always. Billy Joe Jive, Super Private Eye would never be clustered in with a Chester Himes pot-boiler, nor Alice Childress with Alain Locke.
Of course, the same can’t always be said for mainstream booksellers, even in this day and age. While you seldom find Danielle Steele crammed next to Shakespeare, it’s common to find African (if you’re lucky) and African-American literary giants banished to a set of corner shelves amid the latest “street lit” hit.
Shared skin condemns us to a shared ghetto, once again.
Clearly, there’s value in the written word at every level, but let’s not pretend that the depth of thought and grace of prose that a James Baldwin or a Toni Cade Bambara summons don’t outclass the latest hoochie-and-hustler tale that equates today’s marketed “black literature.” Because they do.
Unfortunately, many in the book selling industry live in such a la-la land. That leaves me longing for my bookstores of old, saddened that I won’t have similar places to take and nurture my little ones.
Those locations of my youth have long faded from the average consciousness, and unfortunately, hubs of black commerce. What too often passes for centers of innovation or re-invention now takes the form of nail salons, wig and weave shops, and the ubiquitous cell phone joints that infest urban communities.
Indeed, it’s a new day.
Yet, even this day offers new opportunities. I’m happy to see the resurgence of Ebony and Jet, those storied pillars of Johnson Publishing Co. I’m even excited to see Ebony Jr. resurface, packaged now for a digital age. Any effort to increase literacy and a love of reading should be applauded, and this is one that deserves a soul clap. I expect Kindles, Nooks, iPads, and other devices now will document the new adventures of Sunny and Honey, along with the poetry and prose of authors known and unknown.
Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and fellow members of their pantheon will live eternally through mobiles.
While comforting, it doesn’t totally ease my nostalgia for scampering through the aisles of my beloved bookstore, beaded braids swaying, clutching my latest find, in search of a quiet corner to soak it in, along with all the conversation from the grownups floating above.
Those people spanned a swath of economic diversity. To a person, they would declare that with an education, a destiny of greatness awaited my generation.
And I believed them.
Nia Ngina Meeks is an award-winning journalist, communications consultant, political strategist, educator, occasional philosopher, and aspiring author based in Philadelphia. Like her on Facebook at “Nia Means Purpose” and follow her on Twitter @nmpurpose.