A black-owned bookstore toils in the city that reads


June 03, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

A bookstore is dying in Baltimore. At Mondawmin Mall, Djenaba Bahar sits on a stool behind the counter at the Pyramid book shop, her chin resting on her fist.

"Doesn't look very busy in here," I note. There are no customers.

Ms. Bahar, the store manager, gives a derisive snort. "Hmph! You've heard the joke: If you want to hide something, put it in a book?

"Well," she says, waving an arm about the empty store, "here's your proof." She sounds down in the dumps.

"Are things really as bad as that?" I ask.

This is a rhetorical question, because things do indeed look bad for the store. Mondawmin, one of the nation's few indoor malls serving the inner city, is swarming with people this day. They stream into the jewelry stores, the clothing stores, and the stores selling expensive athletic shoes and designer sweat suits.

But the Pyramid Book Store gets none of this traffic. It is as if someone had placed a fierce guard dog at the entrance.

Sales and revenues have been so low that the store has not been able to add new inventory for nearly a year. The owner of the Pyramid chain, Hodari Abdul-Ali, is looking for a local buyer.

Ms. Bahar, though, considers my question seriously. Then she sighs.

"No," she insists, "it isn't as bad as all that. We have a core of people who support us and who give every indication that they will continue to support us. And the mall has been very supportive as well. It is just that we haven't yet found the magic formula that will get our people excited about reading."

It has not been for want of trying. Pyramid, part of a black-owned chain based in Washington, D.C., opened at Mondawmin Mall almost three years ago with great fanfare. Since then Pyramid has had regular book signings, including its biggest coup: poet Maya Angelou in 1992.

But nothing the store did generated the kind of steady business it needs.

This gets to the heart of the matter: Do black people read? Can a bookstore survive, serving a predominantly black clientele?

Nationwide, these are boom times for books. The American Booksellers Association reported that sales topped $7.9 billion in 1991, up by nearly 8 percent over the year before. The appetite for reading has become so voracious in the suburbs that the Towson community is served by eight major bookstores within a half-mile radius.

But has reading fever infected blacks, particularly those in low to moderate income communities?

"Oh yes," insists Ms. Bahar. "We just have to have faith in what a bookstore represents. Even with all the drugs and all the slayings, new thoughts are opening in our people. They want to read. They want to discuss and debate the issues."

Added Mr. Abdul-Ali, whose three other stores are in the D.C. area: "I know, in my heart and in my head, that black people like to read. Our [Washington] stores do very well -- so well, that I guess we got spoiled. There has been a proliferation of black-owned bookstores across the country as well as an effort on the part of the major chains to market to the black community."

He might have added that there also has been a sudden growth in the black-oriented publishing industry. One of the hottest books of the 1991 season was written by a black author, Sharazad Ali, and examined black male-female relationships. One of the hottest books last year, "Waiting to Exhale," by Terry McMillan, looked at the same subject. The hot book of 1993, said Mr. Abdul-Ali, has been, "The Judas Factor," by Carl Evans, which alleges that the government conspired to kill Malcolm X. There also has been an explosion of small press and self-published books.

Mr. Abdul-Ali said the problem with the Mondawmin store is similar to the problem facing many small businesses, particularly those that are minority-owned: It is under-capitalized.

"You get into a downward spiral: The people don't come right away, so sales are down. When sales are down, you cannot buy inventory, so people don't come.

"I firmly believe that an entrepreneur with capital and local connections who can get into the community and network and market can be a tremendous success."

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