Harlem song – BIBR spotlight: Clara Villarosa’s

Harlem song – BIBR spotlight: Clara Villarosa’s – Hue Man Bookstore, Harlem, New York

Keith Boykin

Clara Villarosa is sitting in a Harlem bookstore sipping on peppermint tea, as the sound of a Marvin Gaye song pour from the radio station airwaves. On this mild August morning, colorfully dressed black men and women parade in and out of the bookstore, peruse the handsome wood shelves, buy books and then continue down the street.

No, this is not a tale from the fabled past of Harlem’s yesteryear. The new Marvin Gaye song is actually Eric Sermon’s “Just Like Music,” sampling the singer. And the bookstore is Villarosa’s own.

This is Harlem 2002, and Hue Man Bookstore is in the heart of it. In a rare moment of repose three weeks after her store opened, Villarosa takes a break from moving chairs and working with electricians to sit down for an interview.

A retired grandmother from Colorado, Villarosa hardly fits the mold of a major player in New York’s literary world. She moved to New York from Denver two years ago to be closer to her two daughters and grandchildren. But her disarmingly charming manner and bubbly spirit belie a wealth of knowledge and a Rolodex full of contacts acquired in her 16 years owning a black bookstore in Denver.

Initially, Villarosa had no plans to start another bookstore when she moved, but she couldn’t ignore the case for opening one in Harlem. “The location chose me,” she says, explaining that she was approached by community leaders. “Why did I say yes when I was retired–because it provided an opportunity to put together a bookstore that I felt was possible and could world.”

Opening a bookstore might not seem like a grand achievement, but Villarosa’s new Hue-Man Bookstore was hailed as a major development in a revitalized Harlem. Maya Angelou, Stevie Wonder, Wesley Snipes, Ashford and Simpson, Jay-Z, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis all showed up for the store’s opening August 1, 2002.

Established bookstore owners would kill for the publicity that Hue-Man received even before it opened. National Public Radio, the New York Daily News, the Amsterdam News, Newsday and Publisher’s Weekly all covered the store’s opening.

As the first African American to serve on the board of the American Booksellers Association, Villarosa founded a black booksellers group within the organization in the 1980s. Through her work on the board and in her own bookstore, she has become a pioneer in the black bookselling community over the past two decades.

“I think she’s a fabulous bookseller” says Desiree Sanders, who opened her own shop, Afrocentric Bookstore in Chicago, in June of 1990. “When I got started, she gave me a lot of good advice, a lot of sound advice.”

Harlem’s literary roots

The real significance of the Hue-Man Bookstore may be its connection to Harlem’s history. “Remember the bookstore is cultural,” Villarosa says. “It makes sense to put it in an area [like] Harlem, which has a cultural history and a literary history.”

In a mostly black New York City neighborhood that approaches 300,000, Harlem seems an ideal location for a major bookstore. But until Villarosa’s store opened, black readers were more likely to buy their books from one of the many street vendors on 125th St.

The birthplace of the Harlem Renaissance, which began in the 1920s, little of that black literary vitality remained in the community that was once home to James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and dozens of other prominent figures. When Hughes died in 1967, it marked the end of an era for Harlem.

The National Memorial African Bookstore shut its doors in the 1960s. Una Mulznac set up Liberation Bookstore at Lenox and 131st Street, but after many years in the same location, she was unable to keep the doors open everyday, and with its 70s “black power” focus, the store began to look and feel frozen in time. Although the Studio Museum still sells books in its gift shop on 125th Street, it is not a full-service bookstore.

“When you thought about what happened before the 90s or the Civil Rights Movement, there wasn’t product,” Villarosa says. “There weren’t books that related to us in significant number, and there weren’t distribution points. There were small stores, not that many and there were underground stores.” But she credits Terry McMillan and other popular black writers for changing all that.

“Most of our fiction was rural and downtrodden–and the fiction did not reflect contemporary African-American people,” she says of pre-McMillan black fiction. “We live in cities. We have jobs. We work in corporations” she says, describing how black novels began to reflect the modern-day urban experience.

Before the boom in popular black fiction of the early 1990s, many doubted that black bookstores could thrive. But not Villarosa. “I never believed that black people didn’t read or buy books because I read and I bought books,” Villarosa says. “It wasn’t always easy to find them, but I did.”

Gentrification in Harlem

After decades of neglect and decline in the 70s and 80s, Harlem became popular again in the 1990s, as the booming stock market and the end of rent control drove New Yorkers uptown in search of affordable housing. But Harlem lacked basic services. The community did not even have a major supermarket until Pathmark opened one in 1999.

The landscape began to change when the multimillion-dollar Harlem USA complex opened on 125th Street at Frederick Douglass Boulevard. The complex includes a Magic Johnson Theater, a Disney Store, a New York Sports Club, an HMV music store and an Old Navy. But the space between the Sports Club and the Disney Store remained conspicuously vacant for more than a year. When Barnes & Noble passed on the idea of opening a bookstore–reportedly because the economics of a Harlem store didn’t add up for the giant retailer–community leaders approached Villarosa.

Not surprisingly, large bookstore chains might easily overlook a location like Harlem. “When I looked at the demographics originally, I looked at the demographics for the general booksellers, and they were primarily middle class. My customer base is working class,” Villarosa says. African Americans, she says, “spend our money for discretionary items proportionately higher than the nonethnic community.”

The bookstore’s opening coincides with the gentrification of Harlem, but many of the new residents moving in are middle-class African Americans. In that respect, the transition may turn out to be different from the demographic changes in some urban areas that went from black to white. “You’re talking about displacing a half million black people,” Villarosa points out. “I don’t think that’s going to happen in five minutes. Where are they going?”

How it came together

If you’re going to start a successful bookstore, it helps to have money. Villarosa knew that and found a way to finance her project with two partners, Rita Ewing, former wife of basketball star Patrick Ewing, and Celeste Johnson, wife of former New York Knick Larry Johnson, both of whom she met through public relations executive Terrie Williams.

The three women combined their own money and secured a $475,000 loan from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, a program that also provided funding for other businesses in the Harlem USA complex. With nearly a million dollars in capital raised, the partners signed a 10-year lease on the 4,000-square-foot store.

“I come with capacity. I have 16 years of bookselling experience. I was a psychotherapist, an assistant hospital administrator, a banker. So I have experience at various levels in the workforce, but I also have vision.” So why hadn’t anyone opened a major bookstore in Harlem before now? In the end, she attributed the timing to fate. “God said it was time,” she says.

In general, black bookstores are relatively small and many are struggling. That’s what makes Villarosa’s bookstore all the more risky. With a huge space, a staff of 10, and more than 10,000 titles, this is no tiny bookstore. In fact, it’s billed as the largest African-American specialty bookstore in America. With a cafe to be completed by the end of 2002, Villarosa wants her bookstore to be a beacon of what a black bookstore can be. “We weren’t welcomed in a lot of [white] stores,” she says. “And we still see some people who ignore us when we come in. And if there’s a black person and a white person standing at the counter, they just go to the white person first. I don’t want to do that to us.”

Villarosa attributes her success, so far, to three things. She works primarily with African-American books, has a black staff, and an African-American market. “I call it black on black on black,” she smiles. It’s a far cry from her bookstore in Denver, which she admits, was more of a struggle. “I just didn’t have the population.” When she started the Denver store with $35,000 and a dream, she was able to support herself by seeing patients in her psychotherapy practice. Today, she estimates a small store would cost about $100,000 to start.

So why have so many black bookstores failed in the past five years? “A lot of the businesses were quite honestly undercapitalized,” says Sanders of Chicago. “When the market got slow, they didn’t have anything to support them through those times,” she adds.

Harlem’s Literary Future

The parade of well-known visiting authors to Hue-Man Bookstore began as soon as the doors opened. In the first few weeks, Omar Tyree, Pearl Cleage and other published authors were in and out of the store for signings and events. Al Sharpton, Derrick Bell, Hugh Price and others are also slated to visit.

“I visited her store in Denver several times and it was always top class,” says best-selling novelist E. Lynn Harris. “I think it’s major to have a bookseller like Clara in Harlem,” he says shortly before his scheduled signing.

“My goal is to provide three things for Harlem” she explains. “To provide a bookstore with product depth–books in number and types that they’ve never seen before,” says Villarosa. “When you go to nonethnic stores, you’re going to see our books in a small section. But here is a store devoted to our product.

“I want to provide an environment, too” she says. “Ambience, as I call it, a nice place and a comfortable place to shop–a store that is friendly, customer-friendly. And the third is customer service,” she says adamantly. “You’re greeted. You’re smiled at. You’re treated like we’re glad you’re here.”

Keith Boykin is the author of two books, including One More River to Cross: Black and Gay in America. A Harvard Law School graduate and former aide to President Clinton, Boykin writes daily commentary on his website www.keithboykin.com. In this issue, Boykin, currently a Harlem resident, profiles Clara Villarosa and her Hue-Man Bookstore, which is sure to be Harlem’s newest treasure. See “BIBR Spotlight” on page 10.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Cox, Matthews & Associates

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group