Readers say goodbye to a friend

Karibu Books closing its doors, to the great sadness of its African-American patrons

January 28, 2008|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,Sun reporter

Lena Robinson started patronizing Karibu Books in Security Square Mall as soon as it opened in 2006.

And so when the Maryland-based, African-American book chain announced suddenly it would be going out of business and closing its Woodlawn store yesterday, Robinson made it a point to stop by.

"I'm going to support them, even on their last day," Robinson, a 28-year-old Catonsville hair stylist said, as she scooped up a few discount novels and a CD.

"It's hard to find black bookstores," she said, telling managers of the store, "I'm sorry to see y'all go."

The sentiment was expressed again and again yesterday by dozens of patrons, some of whom traveled from as far away as Washington to buy the remaining stock of books.

The e-mail and posting on the company Web site Tuesday from Simba Sana, Karibu's founder and chief executive officer, announcing the closing of the 15-year-old chain came as a surprise to many, including employees and those within publishing circles.

"It's really sad to see," said Dawne Allette, a children's book author based in Northwest Baltimore, who had hoped her six books would eventually be sold by the chain. "It was a source of pride to see a black bookstore that was supposedly thriving," Allette said.

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.

In an interview with The Sun last week, Sana blamed management problems for the financial plight that led to the closing of the chain.

The last three of the six stores - at Bowie Town Center, Iverson Mall and The Mall at Prince George's - are to close Feb. 10.

Karibu had been one of the sponsors of the Baltimore Book Festival and was a frequent stop for local and national authors, including Chris Gardner, author of Pursuit of Happiness, which became the basis of the Will Smith movie of the same name.

At the Woodlawn store, The Wire actor Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, who wrote the memoir Grace After Midnight with David Ritz; comedian Mo'Nique, who wrote a cookbook; and fiction writer Kimberla Lawson Roby all had been guests.

"It was fun," said Cynthia A. Coates-Harris, who managed the Security Square location with her identical twin, Sylvia L. Coates.

The sisters, both of whom have full-time jobs, took their positions with the chain in part to pay for their own book habits.

"Reading is our drug of choice," Coates-Harris said between customers yesterday.

They also worked for the chain, they said, because it was black-owned and -operated.

"We liked the fact that it was small and personal," said Coates-Harris, who also works in accounting for a Washington law firm.

The sisters said they also enjoyed talking with customers, including many members of book clubs and church groups.

Although less than half the size of a typical Barnes & Noble or Borders Books & Music, Karibu's store in Security Square Mall carried several thousand books in its high-ceilinged, bright, corner location across from ice cream and cellular phone kiosks.

The selection, focused on African-American authors and subjects, ranged from best-selling fiction to children's books.

"I liked the variety - books you didn't find in other locations," said Don Lipscomb, a 33-year-old truck driver from Woodlawn and frequent patron. "It's unfortunate we're losing a source like this."

Several African-American bookstores remain in business in Baltimore, and there are, of course, the larger chains and Web-based booksellers.

But Romaine and Brian Miles, a Catonsville couple with two children, 9-year-old Omar and 6-year-old Imani, enjoyed the convenience and personal interaction at the Woodlawn bookshop.

They were yesterday's first customers, returning for a second day in a row for a few more bargains.

"I can take my time in a store like this," said Romaine Miles. "Things catch your eye. When you shop online, you don't get that."

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Andrea K. Walker contributed to this article.

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