Weather, economy close book on store

Sibanye: After nine years, the black-oriented Baltimore bookshop is going out of business.

December 30, 2003|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

When she was pregnant with her first son 12 years ago, Robin Green searched store after store for birth announcements and shower invitations that pictured a black baby.

"I was like, `Excuse me, did somebody not tell folks that we have babies, too?" she recalls now, laughing heartily.

In response, she and several partners opened Sibanye Inc., a bookstore and boutique that quickly gained a following as a premier spot in Baltimore for black literature.

But the 9-year-old store is closing this week, the victim of a poor economy and bad weather.

When Tropical Storm Isabel forced the cancellation of the Baltimore Book Festival, a major revenue source for Sibanye, the owners made their final decision to close.

Tomorrow, Sibanye - which means "we are one" in Kiswahili - will sell its last book in West Baltimore's Park Heights.

"We never rebounded from the bad economy," Green said. "We sell pretty things. We don't sell eggs and milk and other necessities. What we have is for people with disposable incomes, and people with disposable incomes haven't been coming in the last year."

During the past decade, Sibanye helped to launch the careers of aspiring black writers and offered a place for bookworms to find obscure titles by writers not found in mainstream bookstores.

It sponsored readings and book signings by notable black authors such as E. Lynn Harris, Octavia Butler, Nikki Giovanni and Connie Briscoe in an intimate setting - its 1,500-square-foot store - and at larger gatherings in conjunction with the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The bookstore was also a key participant in the 8-year-old Baltimore Book Festival, bringing 60 black authors to the fall event that draws tens of thousands of visitors and book buyers.

Green also helped organize an annual literary festival at Coppin State College.

"It hurts," said Green, who halted a corporate and legal career to open the store. "It is your baby. It's something that I really wanted to do since college."

News of the closing saddened and disappointed customers and many in the publishing world.

"It's a tremendous loss and one that will never be refilled," said W. Paul Coates, founder of Black Classic Press, a Baltimore publisher. "Somebody else may come back and open up another bookstore, but it won't be the same."

"I'm surprised that they lasted as long as they did," said Coates, who owned a bookstore in the 1970s. "I've seen a lot of bookstores go, because it's a hard business to run. Robin did a lot of things that were tremendously right. You can do everything and not be able to make it work."

In Sibanye one recent Saturday, Sharon Snead of Baltimore was buying children's books with African-American characters for her nieces and nephews when she heard the news.

"You're closing?" Snead asked with a stunned look after overhearing co-owner Mary Douthit discuss the last day. "Oh, no!"

Kimberla Lawson Roby, who has written five novels centered on black characters, said Sibanye's owners invited her to read and sign one of her novels when larger chain stores weren't receptive. Green also "talked up" her books to customers, increasing their exposure, Roby said.

"I think it's a great loss, because now there are so many African-American titles out and so many brand-new authors, but those books won't get the same type of attention without a store like Sibanye," said Roby, who lives in Belvidere, Ill. "There will be a lot of titles people won't ever hear about."

Although author Venise Berry has signed with a major publisher, Dutton/Penguin, she quickly found that she was on her own in marketing her three books.

"I have not received the same kind of open-arms treatment from the bookstores like I have from Sibanye and other independent booksellers," she said.

Sibanye opened as a cooperative Sept. 9, 1994. About 20 vendors sold goods from the store and shared in the work. Many of the vendors started their own stores but have since closed them. Green and Douthit are the last holdouts at Sibanye.

The pair said sales have slowed with the economy over the past couple of years. Shoppers began buying fewer books and luxury items such as African robes, statues and artwork. Last winter's record snows also depressed sales.

Things got so bad this year, the co-owners said, that they haven't paid themselves on many occasions. The final blow came when Isabel prompted the cancellation of the city book festival, which typically accounted for one-quarter of Sibanye's annual receipts.

"We took a long, hard look and had to face an economic reality that we have to close," Green said.

"Initially, we were both disappointed," Douthit said. "Now it's like, `OK, what's next?'"

Many small independent bookstores have been forced out of business in recent years as they've gone up against expanding national chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books Inc., which can sell books at a discount.

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