One of Harlem's last surviving bookstores, known for hosting events with black authors as well as stocking its shelves with their work, has announced that it will close its storefront this month after 10 years of business. In an open letter, the staff of Hue-Man — whose tagline is "A SKU for every hue" — explained that they're working on building "our amazing bookstore of the future," with owner Martha Allen acknowledging, "The industry will be forced to reconcile the future place of 'real books.' "
ColorLines' Jasmine Johnson talked to her — and her customers — about the decision and her plans for Hue-Man's next incarnation:
Hue-Man's legacy as a literary — hosting both local and celebrity authors like Toni Morrison, Alicia Keys, Walter Mosley, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — cemented Hue-Man into the fabric of both international black bookselling and local Harlemworld. Nigel's Juice Bar — which lives inside of Hue-Man and sells fresh smoothies and patties — turned the store into a café, too …
The improvement in sales did not itself mean that her model was successful, says Allen, or that the spike in revenue could pay for the changes the business needs to compete. She puts it simply: "if you're making money, it's a business; if you're not, [it's] social work. I'm not interested in social work."
The challenges black bookstores face are no romance. Advancing technology and digitization are increasingly central to the book-buying market; a desire for immediate ownership (even though it is technically only licensing) and quick-click purchasing has made brick-and-mortar stores synonymous with the slow, aging, and nostalgic. "For me, closing was a complete no-brainer," Allen says. "The rent was going to go up, but even if I could have negotiated the same rent, I wouldn't have done it. The market is costly, the space is inadequate, the vision is backward. This is 10-years-back; we need a 20-years-forward vision." …
Hue-Man will continue to provide while it brainstorms. Its website will be refashioned for e-commerce. It'll host pop-up shops at various events around town. (The first event is a signing with Dwyane Wade from the Miami Heat.) Its calendar of events will stretch beyond the confines of 2319 Frederick Douglass Boulevard. After all, black books aren't what's obsolete, even if the idea that one can have a successful business solely from selling them might be.
As a shape-shifting, traveling social institution, the new Hue-Man might more deeply embody the African diasporic themes it specializes in: transience, improvisation, transformation.
Read more at Colorlines.