December 11, 2020

Communities rally to combat racial bias at BIPOC-owned bookstores

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“Get out, we do not want your kind here.” Sandra Dear, owner of The Little Boho Bookshop, read the anonymous note left in her mailbox just hours before the grand opening of her bookstore in Bayonne, New Jersey in 2017. This would be the first of many notes, emails, and phone calls over the years to come that implicated, or explicitly relayed, racial bias against the black ownership of the indie store, Janelle Griffith reported for NBC. On social media, Dear posted about one particularly disturbing phone call during which, after letting the customer know that they did sell the Quran, the customer responded, “I need fifty copies and I’d like to burn them and you in your store,” before dropping the call.

On November 20, Dear was forced to call the police after receiving numerous emails and “racially charged” phone calls to the store that made her fear for her life and those of her employees, Griffith reported. The authorities launched an investigation into the “act of bias intimidation” and apprehended 59-year-old Qiuewn Zheng, now in custody and charged with bias intimidation, cyber-harassment, and terroristic threats.

This is not the first time Black-owned, BIPOC-owned, or women-owned stores have been targeted with prejudice, harassment, and oftentimes very real threats. In this year of reconciliation, acknowledgement, and empowerment, people have made their stance clear—some for the worse. Harriet’s Bookshop, a Philly-based bookstore which opened in February, shared a hateful and upsetting email with its Instagram followers in September which sparked outrage.

According to Ali Vitali at MSNBC, women-owned and minority-owned businesses were on the rise prior to the pandemic with businesses run by Black women topping those rising rates. However, the Coronavirus halted this progress, decimating Black-owned businesses especially. According to Shelly Bell, CEO of Black Girl Ventures, “Community building is no longer a nice thing to have. Community is now an essential tool to push founders forward.”

Despite battling racial injustice and all it implies, Black business owners continue the fight. Jeanine Cooke, owner of Harriett’s Bookshop, makes it clear why. In her interview with Vitali, she recounts:

“I had a seven-year-old girl come in here, buying all these books with her dad. She said that she wants to open a bookshop one day. I never had that reality when I was a seven-year-old little girl but that’s the reality moving forward.”

Paving the way for the next generation is what inspires her and others to keep their businesses going, no matter the cost. Communities far and wide recognized the struggles of these shops and showed their support. Small Business Saturday came just two days after the incident at The Little Boho Bookshop and Griffith reports that it became the biggest day of sales the store has ever had, a feat even without a pandemic but monumental in spite of COVID guidelines in place.

“Last night, a tear finally escaped but this incident will not change me,” Dear wrote in her Instagram post, a point I’d like to counter. To fight bigotry and hate in the midst of a pandemic must be life-changing and while Dear’s personality remains unchanged, her tenacity and spirit flourishes, drawing supporters nationwide. She writes, “We are all going to go through difficult things. And you can do one of two things: You can cower from it or you can walk through it and learn from it. And this has been a teachable moment.” To the BIPOC-owned bookshops who are struggling: We see you, we are listening to you, and we are here to support you.

To support:

NJ: https://www.thelittlebohobookshop.com/

PA: https://www.harriettsbookshop.com/

CA: https://malikbooks.com/

FL: https://listeningtreebooks.com/

MI: https://www.blackstonebookstore.com/

NYC: http://www.thelitbar.com/

For a fuller list of where you can be supporting Black-owned bookstores, please click here https://www.cntraveler.com/story/black-owned-bookstores

 

 

Jessie Stratton is an intern at Melville House.

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