Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Karibu biting the dust...

Perhaps another wake up call (but do we rise? Too many of us are still listening to Hillary's siren song). Karibu is likely the biggest stand-alone African American owned and operated bookstore in North America. A legitimate chain. Independent. The bulwark against Barnes & Noble, Borders and gulp...Wal Mart. It was a model for black small business. Here, two young brothers literally do what Mr. White Man says and pull themselves up by bootstraps and build something. No, not a bunch of insipid incense carts that also sell Farakhan quotations. Real stores. Big inventories. Vendor to some of the huge general book events in Baltimore and the Nation's Capital. But now, closing. Sad, evil thing that's happening.

Black shops dropping like flies...but why? Okay, this is a tough economy, I know. There're always gong to be business goblins re: supply, finance, control, clashes of management personalities--from Time-Warner down to the mom and pop deli. Nevertheless, we should ponder an unspoken business model question. Think about it this way: there's always a niche, under the radar. But when you're forced to push the street fiction and the more simplistic/crass chicklit/soap opera stuff and Video Vixen nonfiction--the same product as the huge chains--and there's no price break, better service, more convenience, etc., the chains will win every time. Ergo, put out a unique product and enhanced service. Yes there are large "white" indie stores barely scraping by, but that's how they do scrape by. Different selections, intelligent choices, price breaks, expert staff doing handselling. Special events. Hell, look at the tiny specialty mystery shops which stand the test of time, the comic book stores, even the antiquarian shops. I know that's easier said than done, but it's worth the effort when the alternative is shuttering these businesses, liquidating the stock and Wal-Mart-ing everything in sight. In my D.C.-Balto. area, brimming with black professionals, students, educators, military folk with an education (in other words--officers!!!)entrepreneurs, mid-level managers to corporate VPs, this state of affairs is especially troubling.

Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

I live in DC and this is a big deal here. What happened to them--?

Lola Gets said...

Wait, what, whoa...theyre closing the entire chain??


nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

America is turning into one giant mall. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that the DC area will not have a black owned bookstore.

There is an independent bookstore on the block where our office is. I don't know how they stay in business. They do a lot of community events, esp. book readings for kids.

However, one by one all the local stores are leaving. The hardware store just moved out (couldn't afford the new rent). Rumor has it a Panda Express is coming.

Lisa said...

Our black bookstores are indeed falling like flies. Yes, often it is a management flap, but structurally you are right--perhaps it is a business model, or we as black people need to adjust our bookbuying tastes and habits. Why should I go to a small store and buy Zane when I can go to Target and find her? When I go Shrine of the Black Madonna, I go to find specialty items, literature, non-fiction studies and texts and yes even your stuff Mr.Chambers, when I know all they will have at Borders is the same ole same ole. Thus why have a small chain when you are offering the same thing? I have been to Maryland to thi store, and the staff while friendly does not appear to recommend or educate the consumers. If some lady wants Teri Woods, that's that. This again is why people go to independent stores, to get that service and knowledge. So yes it comes back on us as readers acting with more mature and sophisticated tastes.

[I know you do not put it as delicately!!!]

Hathor said...

I think it is the age old story, the ability to raise capital. Perhaps the business model doesn't appeal to the bean counters.

It is not that the consumer changes, they are left without any choice.

Hathor said...

I find myself, the older I get, not wanting to shop in the mall or in a gigantic store. I don't want to walk two miles to find what I want and I have found during illness how great it is to have groceries delivered. I really think the niche stores and stores that offer a lot of service will be the more successful stores as the population ages. Too bad these kinds of stores wont be able to survive until that happens. Just had to add this as I have approached another milestone.

Anonymous said...

I know the authors have been buzzing about this all day--but I'm sure the publishers haven't.They don't care.

I think its possible that Simba Sana and his partners had a parting of the ways quite apart from business problems, although business problems, priorities and focus is likely a piece of the puzzle.

Anonymous said...

It seems "Alex" was right on. business conflicts per the Washington Post 1/24/08 (nice quote, Author Chambers). However, I agree with Chambers. Glover probably felt that you must do more as an independent than stock more serious works and force people to find them while you shovel the low brow books and buttshaker calendars out to folks who get too much of that anyway.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to hear about Karibu.

This is a sign of the times. Most people don't read anymore. This is independent of race and class. I know college educated folks who haven't cracked a non work-related book since they left college. They will watch the boob tube or movies, but don't think reading as entertainment.

All independent bookstores are fighting for survival. To be honest, I don't see how Borders and Barnes and Nobles make money.

Anonymous said...

The closing of Karibu has nothing to do with black-a-nomics. The owners, Simba and Sunni, are going through a really messy divorce.

Anonymous said...

How large is the market for stores that specialize in quality African-American books? I would think that the market is relatively small, considering: 1) how many blacks have the requisite education to read such books, 2) how many blacks have the free time to read such books considering their work schedule, children, etc., 3) how many blacks who meet the first criterion actually WANT to read quality African-American books.

Chris, I like your analogy to independent bookstores. However, please bear in mind that ALL independent bookstores are finding it challenging to survive. In fact, it is safe to say that many parts of the country have no independent bookstores whatsoever. Hell, there are parts of the country where Wal-mart and Costco are the only bookstores in the area.

Also, bear in mind that the generations behind us are what I call "post-literate." By that, I mean they don't read much unless they are forced to. After all, how can a book compete with a PSP? Now that every iPod can play TV shows and movies, how can a book compete with that? This affects nearly every product involving the written word, from black book to newspapers to comic books. They all have customer bases that are getting older and smaller.

Finally, I'm tired of hearing about how things were so lovely "once upon a time when we were colored." Sure integration might be a factor in the demise of the black bookstore, but it is not the only factor. In fact, it isn't even the major factor. To focus on that is shortsighted, if not downright glib.

I have supported independent bookstores on two different sides of the country. I agree that independent bookstores have a niche for people who want to patronize stores where the staff is knowledgeable. I also think that independent bookstores need to have a welcoming environment that make people want to browse, sit and read. However, I cannot emphasize enough that in addition to pleasant surroundings and knowledgeable staff, an independent bookstore must leverage technology as much as it can. It must use information technology to actually gather INFORMATION that the bookstore can use to its strategic advantage. What is the top-selling product at the store? On which day of the week does the store do the most business? Which day of the week does it do the least business? Most independent bookstores, especially the black ones, have trouble answering these simple questions. But how can you stay in business if you don't know the details of your business?

Overall, I think it is time for many of these black bookstores to stop limiting themselves to strictly black books. Instead, they need to know what customers want and be able to provide that.

Gunfighter said...

Most of what I was going to say has already been saud by many other commentors, so I will leave it alone, other than to say that officers aren't the only people in military service that read... or who are educated.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I don’t agree with your analysis. Karibu’s business plan was a “niche” plan eight to ten years ago, when Zane and similar African American authors weren’t at Barnes and Noble and other mainstream chain stores. Back then, you had to go to Karibu to find one of these authors’ books. Indeed, back when Karibu was flourishing, such authors were all self-published entrepreneurs, themselves. However, seeing their success, traditional publishing houses, like Simon & Schuster, stepped in to give Zane and others book deals. In other words, they co-opted that formerly niche market, essentially making Karibu irrelevant.

The complaint I always had about the Karibus of the world is that they don’t really promote a culture of reading and sharing ideas. You go there, buy the book, then go home. There were no author readings; if there were book clubs, I was certainly not aware of them. In that sense, you are correct that they did not try to expand their niche. They were merely another place to buy books—not a place you went to engage in literary exchange with others.

To me, the more relevant question is if the African American literature market is drying up: if black people are tiring of erotica and street hustlers. Are black people still buying such books in huge numbers?

Anonymous said...

There is a book called “Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill)” by David Cay Johnston. He was recently interviewed on Democracy Now! as well as on Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

According to him, Walmart has a deal whereby they get to KEEP the sales tax they collect on EVERY SALE. Hence, this is why they are in the high volume business and drive prices so low that they kill small business.

As for Borders and Barnes & Noble, while it seems that they are in the business of selling books, they are really in the business of advertising books to consumers who walk through their aisles. They charge publishers very hefty "placement" fees to stock and display those books. Therefore, the minor revenue they may receive for actual book sales are a drop in the bucker of their overall income. Small business simply can't compete on this level, unless they too grow and play the game (and it is a game) the way it's being played by those who create and benefit by the rules.

Anonymous said...

It is really difficult seeing Karibu closing, but this is (kinda) what happened to Hechinger's. The huge chain stores really hurt smaller retail.
I've always wondered about those comic book stores and what is really going on in those stores they seem so seedy as if other business is taking place.
It would be nice to see your blog made into a weekly column!

Christopher Chambers said...

I stand corrected and chastised for my officers vs. enlisted personnel comment. However, as I am an elitist and curmudgeon--a combo of "Frasier Crane" and Stanley Crouch (the resulting skin and hair color is thus explained) I can't help myself! Indeed, when on tour at military bases PX's and stores close to bases, and here in the DC area (the Px is really just a Wal Mart or Target) I got the full flava of a "certain" type of black folk and certain type of cracka currently serving in Uncle Sam's armed forces. It doesn
t excuse my generalization, but it sure as shit explains it... ;-)