Books, toys tailored to the black experience

June 04, 1993|By Margo Harakas | Margo Harakas,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

Ever hear of Crispus Attucks?

Or Daniel Hale Williams?

Or Garrett Morgan?

Attucks was martyred in the Boston Massacre of 1770. In 1893, Williams performed what is thought to be the first open-heart surgery -- on a stabbing victim. The man lived for another 50 years. And Morgan is credited with inventing a gas mask and a traffic light.

They are all part of American history, but as African-Americans, their names are not as widely known as those of white heroes.

Enter Sharon Berry-Vivian.

As a mother of two young children, Ms. Berry-Vivian was concerned by the difficulty of finding books that realistically portray blacks, their culture and history.

"I'd go shopping around for books to read to Shannon [age 6] and Maxwell [3 1/2 ] and I'd have such a hard time finding any variety," says the Delray Beach, Fla., woman. "Everywhere I went, I found the same things."

Doing a little research, she discovered all sorts of intriguing books being published that featured African-American characters, told of African-American history or recounted African folk tales. But they weren't always finding their way to local bookstore shelves.

Seeing an opportunity, the housewife and mother decided to provide for others what she desired for herself: a mail-order house specializing in books and toys that reflect the black experience. And portray "inspiring males, assertive females, family life and grandparents."

The result is "Hearts and Hands," a 24-page catalog of books, games and tapes. (To receive a catalog,call (407) 272-8298, or write Monarch Publishers, 637 Bunting Drive, Delray Beach, Fla. 33444.)

Quality and sustaining power are the keys to her selections, Ms. Berry-Vivian says. "I look for books and playthings that have longevity. I'm not looking for fads. I'm looking for something that withstands the test of time. Classic items. High-quality items. And I'm looking for items that reaffirm black children's identity."

A lifetime book lover herself, Ms. Berry-Vivian remembers as a child trying to read by flashlight under the bedcovers at night after her mother had turned out the lights.

"I never saw anybody like me in the books," she recalls.

"I used to love 'Ramona,' I used to identify with 'Pippi Longstocking.'. But you never found black characters like that."

Today, she says, while there should be many more books featuring blacks, the situation at least is better than when she was a child.

Ms. Berry-Vivian launched her mail-order business before Christmas, "by spreading the news word-of-mouth," and is just now mailing out catalogs.

"I got a mailing list from [Emerge] magazine," she says. "I'm targeting an upper-middle-class market."

While she gets technical help from her husband, Leroy, an IBM engineer, Ms. Berry-Vivian's "Hearts and Hands" is, for the most part, a one-person operation.

She designs the catalog, writes the text, selects the items and answers the phone.

It's a major change in routine for a woman who gave up her job as an office manager more than six years ago when she was expecting her first child.

It could take as long as three years before she sees a profit, but Ms. Berry-Vivian is a patient entrepreneur. Eventually, she would like to branch out into publishing original works, she says.

In the meantime, she's pleased with the response of grandparents and young mothers, who make up the bulk of her customer base.

"One lady called from Detroit. She said, 'I could have just cried when I saw this catalog.' She liked it so much."

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