In 2007, with no experience in digital marketing, Derrick and Ramunda Young turned their commitment to Black culture and love of reading into Mahogany Books, an online destination for Black literature. Fourteen years later, their business now includes a thriving online store, a retail shop located in the Anacostia Arts Center in Washington D.C. and a new store located in National Harbor in Maryland.
In honor of Black Business Month in August, we talked to Mahogany Books Co-Founder & Co-Owner, Ramunda Young about how they got started; growing their business during the pandemic; and advice for other entrepreneurs.
The Root: What sparked your interest in selling books?
Ramunda: Derrick and I were trying to identify how we could make a bigger impact in this world and still be connected to culture and community. Books were very personal for us. We would go on dates in bookstores and take our daughter Mahogany to bookstores. Derrick is from D.C., so he’d been exposed to Black books. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, near Black Wall Street and never knew the story of the Tulsa Race Massacre until I went to college. When we were tossing around ideas about what kind of business to start, books were a natural driver. Going online allowed us to get books into the hands of people in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Ohio, or wherever.
The Root: How did you secure funding to launch Mahogany Books?
Ramunda: Derrick and I started Mahogany Books with just a laptop in our one-bedroom apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. We have never taken out a bank loan. We were both working full-time when we launched and said, “We’re either going to do this or not.” We pulled from our 401ks and that’s how we funded our business. No third parties or bank loans. It was our own money. We’ve gotten grants, but we’d been in business for ten years at that point with no financial backing from anyone else. Except for our family loaning us a thousand dollars to buy a lot of books at one point and us paying it back, it was just us.
The Root: How did you expand your business to include a retail location?
Ramunda: Being online allowed us to be very impactful with low overhead, but it was always our plan to have a physical location. Our strategy was to get out in the community and build our email list. It was 2007 or 2008, so I don’t think there was social media. We cold called book clubs saying, “Hey, we see you have a book conference coming up, we would love to provide books for your attendees.” Publishers were not sending mid-level authors on tour so we would get calls saying, “I saw you at this event, or someone mentioned you. I have a book coming out, can you meet me at this restaurant or nightclub and sell my book?” We loaded up our car and met those authors, book clubs, and organizations at their events. It was a lot of long hours and late nights. When we looked up, we had tons of people on our email list and relationships with great authors. We emailed customers about new books, best-sellers, and events. We did that for ten years. When we opened the doors to our physical store in 2017, it felt like all those people from all those years, came through the doors with us.
The Root: Why did you decide to open a second retail location?
Ramunda: National Harbor opened July 3, but we were approached by developers in 2019 about opening a second location. During a media interview, we were asked if we were looking to expand and Derrick responded, “Yes, we are.” After that, we started getting phone calls from shopping centers saying they would love to have us. Derrick and I had visited National Harbor. It’s located in the middle of the DMV and easy to get to. Pre-pandemic, National Harbor would see 14 million visitors with a good mix of tourists and locals. That was important, because it’s one thing to build a relationship with people who travel but it’s also important to build repeat business and community with people who live there. When they reached out, we thought that leasing space in a center like that would be out of our league, but we were wrong. They were very accommodating and open to getting not only our Black business, but other Black businesses there as well. Because of COVID, that build out process took a lot longer.
The Root: How did you keep your business going during the pandemic?
Ramunda: Washington, D.C. shut down last March, three or four days before a big author event we had scheduled. We still had the online business, but our in-store revenue had started to supersede online sales. Cancelling that author event and looking at our revenue projections was very scary. We started applying for PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans. It was a blessing that we had ten years under our belt of being online. With our physical space closed, we asked ourselves, “How do we serve our customers?” Kids were at home and parents didn’t know what to do. So, we created these book bundles for elementary, middle, and high school kids – buy three books and the fourth one was free. We emailed customers and put it on our social media. The media reached out, so we were able to promote the bundles again. We gained new customers all over the U.S. because people wanted to get books into their kids’ hands. We also started doing Blind Date with a Black Book and sold out every time. The first two weeks after we closed, business dipped then it started going up. We didn’t have to tweak the website, we just had to get creative on the marketing side and that helped us survive the pandemic.
Sixty days later, George Floyd was murdered. I looked at our website and the numbers were going crazy. White people were looking for books about Black people and the Black experience. Someone tweeted, “If you’re going to buy Black books and you want to make a difference, buy them from a Black bookstore.” It was retweeted over and over. People across the United States who had never shopped with us said, “I want to make a difference and I’m going to support a Black bookstore.” But it came with challenges. There were paper shortages and post office delays. Orders came in for books that were out of stock and production could not keep up. Most of our customers were understanding but we did receive hate email saying, “Give us our money back, you’re trying to scam us!”
But, between May and October of last year we sold 100,000 books online. Going into the holidays it increased, giving Mahogany Books multimillion dollar revenue status. That was the first time we had done that amount in such a short time. Having a solid web business all those years allowed us to service this influx of new customers.
The Root: What are the top three things that you recommend to other business owners?
Ramunda: First, have a strong online presence and own your own website, even if you already have a physical store. People can shop anytime so you make money while you sleep. Second, partner with other organizations. Be a part of the community, whether it’s reading to kids or supporting local schoolteachers. Think about how you can serve other people. Be a partner not just a vendor. Third, listen to your own voice. Pandemic or not there are so many things swirling around – 41% of Black businesses failed and shut down, and you’re thinking, “Maybe I should shut down. Maybe this is not for me.” But, if your voice is saying, “‘No, we need you,” and you’re passionate about it, then make this thing happen. Turn up your voice and mute the other people who are saying not to do it.
The Root: What was it like to bring President Barack Obama to the community for a book discussion?
Ramunda: If felt very surreal. His team said he was very impressed with Mahogany Books and wanted to join a discussion of his book, “A Promised Land.” We pulled that event together within four days with background checks and everything. Talking with the President about his book along with twenty of our book club members was a testament to my husband and I and our belief in Black books.
The Root: What keeps you going through all the ups and downs of business?
Ramunda: Knowing that this is bigger than us. That it’s not just about the revenue. It’s about community. It’s about how important our stories are. Knowing that each person who walks through the door is blown away by the number of books written by Black people, and they had no idea. That fills us.