Karibu book chain is closing

Stores promoted African-American writers

Black-themed book chain closing

January 24, 2008|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

Karibu Books started off as a kiosk specializing in books for African-Americans, but over the years transformed into something more.

It became a place where African-American authors could promote their books when mainstream stores turned them away. Some went on to become best-selling authors.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Business section about the closing of Karibu Books incorrectly stated that Cynthia A. Coates-Harris, a manager at the chain's Woodlawn store, is also a lawyer. She is an accounts payable specialist with a Washington law firm.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

Now, after 15 years, Karibu (ka-REE-boo) is going out of business, leaving behind what some say will be a cultural void.

On Sunday, the chain based in Temple Hills, in Prince George's County, will close its Woodlawn store at Security Square Mall, as well as a store in Forestville in Prince George's County. It will close three other Prince George's stores Feb. 10. The chain's store in Pentagon City in Virginia shut its doors last month.

"Everyone will be affected by this - our readers, our community of writers and publishers," said Paul Coates, owner of Black Classic Press, a Baltimore publishing house that frequently turned to Karibu to promote its authors. "As a publisher we've lost a major outlet. But more importantly, our community has lost an institution."

Simba Sana, the founder and chief executive officer, posted a letter announcing the closing, which he also e-mailed to customers, on the Karibu Web site yesterday.

In a phone interview, Sana blamed internal management problems for the financial plight of the book chain. He said the company owed vendors thousands of dollars and planned to file for bankruptcy.

"The blame falls squarely on myself and others in the company," Sana said.

"The financial position was a downward spiral," he added. "I would need a miracle to pay back all the debt now."

Over the years, Karibu became a gathering spot for African-Americans. The bookstore chain has held hundreds of book signings and helped launch careers. Black publishers could always find a spot on the shelf for their authors.

Black Classic Press had scheduled book signings for the April release of mystery writer Walter Mosley's latest book.

Best-seller author Zane - she uses only one name - remembers Karibu being the only store that would sell her first self-published book, The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth, in 2000. Now head of her own publishing house in Prince George's County with 54 authors, Zane continued to make Karibu one of her first stops when promoting a book.

"They helped a lot of authors better their careers," Zane said. "The closing is going to hurt the industry in a lot of ways."

Karibu was an anomaly in the world of independent bookstores. While many small stores find it hard to operate more than one location, it seemed to thrive. After opening in 1993 in a kiosk at Prince George's Plaza and a pushcart at the former Landover Mall, the company steadily added locations over the years. It opened in Security Square in 2006.

The Baltimore-area store - its first outside the Washington metro area - was supposed to be start of an expansion into other markets, such as Philadelphia.

While small retailers find it hard to match prices at the big chains and discounters and the Internet, Karibu found a ready market in areas with large, middle-class African-American populations.

Sana said low sales or a bad economy weren't the reason for Karibu's demise.

He said the part he would miss most about running the business was "serving African- Americans." He hopes that he'll be able to open another bookstore one day.

"Who knows, once some things pan out, it's possible that Karibu will come back," Sana said.

The manager of the Karibu's Woodlawn store said she was surprised to hear about the closing this week because the store had a steady stream of customers. There were book signings every Thursday for authors such as comedian Monique, who wrote a cookbook, and Chris Gardner, author of Pursuit of Happiness, which became the basis of the Will Smith movie of the same name.

"When I came in this week and found out we were closing down, I was shocked," said manager Cynthia A. Coates-Harris, who said she's a lawyer but took the job because she loves to read.

Sonya Hall Turner, 40, a Gaithersburg resident, said she liked Karibu because she could find a wide selection of books by black authors in one location. She also liked that the bookstore promoted other black-owned business.

"Karibu offered a comfortable medium in which black authors, poets and lecturers could express their thoughts, ideas and opinions to others in the black community," Turner said. "I am really sorry to see them closing."

andrea.walker@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Megan Hartley contributed to this article.

Store closings

Closed:

Pentagon City, Va.

Closing Sunday:

Security Square, Woodlawn; Centre at Forestville

Closing Feb. 10:

Bowie Town Center, The Mall at Prince Georges, Iverson Mall

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