Black-owned chain fills special need


December 25, 1990|By Alexis Moore | Alexis Moore,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Take a classic dictum for business success, add a non-profit commitment to community, and mix in years of on-the-job entrepreneurial training.

The result is Pyramid Books, the Washington-Baltimore area's -- and possibly the nation's -- first chain of black-owned bookstores specializing in books by and about people of African descent.

Pyramid is expanding this year from two stores in the nation's capital to six, which Hoduri Abdul-Ali, the chain's founder and president, acknowledged is a big leap, especially in these bumpy economic times.

"Because we find a need and fill it, and we stock material that emphasizes the importance of self-reliance and independence, we think we'll be all right," Mr. Abdul-Ali said, giving a nod to a traditional success formula.

Nationally, black-owned and black-operated bookstores are benefiting from "a real renaissance in our people turning to their own literature again," said H. Khalif Khalifah of Newport News, Va., who runs a family-owned publishing company and a wholesale book outlet in Philadelphia. "This is the largest peak we've seen since we started the company in 1972."

In particular, books geared toward black children are booming. Haki Madhubuti, a poet formerly known as Don L. Lee, is president of the African-American Publishers, Booksellers and Writers Association. He has said that sales of all children's books are up 118 percent over last year, and sales of multicultural books are up more than 200 percent.

Last year, Mr. Khalifah started Your Black Books Guide, which offers listings of publishers and distributors and tips on self-publishing for the nation's black booksellers and would-be authors. While it names 75 black-owned bookstores, the list is probably incomplete, the company acknowledged.

The Pyramid stores were named "in honor of the great civilizations that people of African descent built along the Nile Valley," Mr. Abdul-Ali said. He added pragmatically, "Plus, it's an easy name to remember."

Pyramid stores stock 3,000 titles, including romance novels, religious and philosophical tomes, Swahili language textbooks, economic development books, cookbooks, self-improvement guides and children's books. It also offers videotapes, posters, games, dolls, greeting cards, periodicals and gift items.

The privately held chain began in 1981 with one store near Howard University. The second, in Washington's Southeast section, opened in 1988. The third store, the largest so far, opened in suburban Maryland's Prince Georges County in January, and the fourth followed in May in the city's Northeast section.

Last month, Pyramid opened a branch in Mondawmin Mall in VTC Baltimore, and one in San Diego, Mr. Abdul-Ali's hometown, is scheduled to open this month.

Mr. Abdul-Ali said he and his two partners "are looking seriously at franchising, so San Diego is kind of a test [of an out-of-town location]. My mother will be managing the store, so I'm optimistic."

While Pyramid attempts to tap a market often ignored by bigger companies, it also benefits from its location. The Washington metropolitanarea is home to many of the nation's most highly educated and affluent blacks.

Prince Georges County was a logical choice for Pyramid's third store. An estimated 46 percent of the county's 714,000 residents are black, and the estimated average annual income for black residents there is $38,000, compared with the national average for blacks of $23,200, according to census figures.

Essential to Pyramid's success are its efforts to stimulate cultural and economic productivity by serving as meeting places and community centers.

The first store and the one in Northeast Washington sublet space to other black enterprises, including a bakery. Pyramid also sponsors occasional story hours for children, along with the usual author appearances.

Each store also maintains a community bulletin board. Mr. Abdul-Ali has organized book drives for prisoners and worked in the anti-apartheid movement since 1985.

He chose to put his second store in a neighborhood that is marginal at best "because Anacostia [in Southeast Washington] has been sorely neglected, so we felt we had to be there."

Mr. Abdul-Ali, 35, came to the business world circuitously. After graduating from Howard in 1976 with a journalism degree, he became a reporter with the Washington Afro-American newspaper. While working there, he started a wholesale magazine and newspaper distribution company that "outgrew my apartment and the basement," and had to move. He phased out the wholesale operation in 1981 to concentrate on retail sales, and never looked back.

Pyramid is more than a business for Mr. Abdul-Ali. "We conceived of Pyramid as a resource to help people, and try to raise their self-esteem. We want to break this cycle of negativism," he said.

"We hope that when people walk through that door, they are hit with the realization that we come from a great culture, that we can do no less than our best because we owe them."

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