This essay appears in the Literary Organizations Issue of Beltway Poetry Quarterly.
Whether walking through Bowie Town Center, Forestville and Iverson malls—or even Pentagon City—I still feel the void despite the retail shops that have popped up in spaces once occupied by Karibu Books. To understand this void is to know that the independent bookstore was more than just that. And to understand this void is to also know that the company’s history goes back further than its first store and the 15 years the chain operated.
It started with Yao Hoke Glover III and his wife, Karla Wilkerson-Glover, selling books on the campuses of both Howard and Bowie State universities in 1992. “Vending was a real good way to be on the street and be in touch with people and dealing with books,” Glover told me in a recent interview at his family’s home. “The whole idea of being on the street and dealing with people, making money and also having the flexibility to manage family and other stuff was really where it was.”
“You got a chance to be a part of the community,” Wilkerson-Glover said. They sold books on Benning Road, K Street and at the H Street Festival. She said, “We just rode around with inventory in the car and we would just set up wherever we could.”
The following year, they partnered with Simba Sana and the operation grew to a kiosk in Prince George’s (P.G.) Plaza Mall in Hyattsville, MD, and a pushcart in the now-demolished Landover Mall. “We only vended on the street for a year and a half,” Glover said. “Things moved at sort of a quick pace before we moved into the malls.” The kiosk became the first store in P.G. Plaza Mall in 1994. Three years later, the pushcart in Landover became the second store.
My first encounter with Karibu was in 1998, when I was wandering the second level of Landover Mall before spotting the glass-enclosed store on the first floor. What caught my eye was the store’s name (pronounced ka-REE-boo), which I would later learn was Kiswahili for “welcome.” Another thing I remember seeing was the throng of beautiful black folks working their way through narrow aisles. Upon closer inspection, I noticed the words on its banner: “Books by and about African People.”
Until that moment, if you had asked me how much of an impact African Americans made in arts and letters, I might have said: “Not much.” That’s what the larger chains were telling me when they designated a section of no more than four bookcases to “African-American Literature” and “African-American History.” That those writers weren’t included on the “Fiction” and “History” shelves also told me what those chains thought of Black writers. Until that moment at Landover Mall, I would cringe whenever I passed the “Street Lit” titles in those sections at Borders and Barnes & Noble. The “Street Lit” titles took up most of the shelf space, as if to say that’s the only kind of literature Black people were capable of writing and reading.
But that day in 1998 showed me something else: That Black literature is bigger than the mainstream said it was. So you could imagine the sense of empowerment a 17-year-old had, knowing that writers of African descent—writers who looked like me—could fill a whole bookstore. That empowerment was later heightened when Karibu went from having two stores to becoming the nation’s largest Black-owned bookstore chain. By 2005, when the sixth store opened at Security Square Mall in Baltimore, the company had more than forty employees. Four of the five stores were located in Prince George’s County, MD—including Iverson Mall and Bowie Town Center—with a fifth location at Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, VA. “The business came out of a sense of balance and harmony,” Glover said. “I had a family; I was young and still in school.” Karibu allowed him to balance his passion as a writer and artist with his activism.
Like the churches and barbershops, Karibu filled a void in the Black community. The bookstore was to me what Joe Clarke’s store in Eatonville, FL., was to Zora Neale Hurston. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks On A Road, Hurston recalled Joe Clarke’s store as “the heart and spring of the town.” It was an informal salon where people with common intellectual, social, political, and cultural interests gathered to refine their taste and increase their knowledge through dialogue. According to Hurston’s recollection, the general store was a place where people “passed this world and the next one through their mouths.” Of the store, she writes: “The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions…. There was open kindnesses, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at…. For me, the store porch was the most interesting place that I could think of.”
Karibu was all that and more. According to Bookselling This Week (BTW), an online newsletter of the American Booksellers Association, the list of authors who took part in many of Karibu’s events was “a veritable who’s who of major black writers, academics, artists and journalists.” This list included Dr. Maya Angelou, Vernon Jordan, E. Lynn Harris, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison and Walter Mosley. I would also add William Jelani Cobb, PhD, a journalist, essayist and professor, to that list of who’s who.
In a Jan. 24, 2008 article, the Washington Post recounted the memories of Stephanie Leonard, who—at the time of the interview—was a 25-year-old residence hall director at Bowie State University. As a youngster, Leonard’s Girl Scout troop sat at the feet of Nikki Giovanni as she read poems, the Post reported.
It was also at one of Karibu’s readings and book signings in 2007, where I had my first face-to-face with one of my favorite writers. That year, poet and essayist A. Van Jordan was in town, promoting his collection of poems, Quantum Lyrics. It was also two years after Jordan wrote a blurb for my first chapbook. Prior to that moment, we only corresponded through email. After his reading, I went up and introduced myself before we clasped palms and I was pulled into a big brother embrace.
That greeting, alone, said something about Karibu. Some of the writers on their shelves were self-published; others were local writers who had been turned away when larger chains refused to carry their books. But the same way an established writer validates a young poet was the same way Karibu validated those writers by assuring them space on its shelves for their books. And why not? It was a win-win for everyone, especially for Karibu. “Once a person wants to go deeper into culturally-related inventory, including small press and independently published works, Karibu fills that niche,” Lee McDonald, a former marketing director at Karibu, told BTW in a Jan. 4, 2005 article.
The company filled another niche when it spring-boarded the careers of many local writers, including bestselling erotica author Zane. In a Jan 24, 2008 Baltimore Sun article, Zane recalled a time when the company’s bookstores were the only places that would carry her first self-published book, The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth. “They helped a lot of authors better their careers,” she said. Even after heading her own publishing house in Prince George’s County with 54 authors, she continued to make Karibu one of her first stops when promoting a book, the Sun reported.
Dandrea James-Harris, an editorial assistant with Heart and Soul Magazine, told the Post that Karibu was a required stop whenever her friends would visit from her native Harlem.
The company continued filling those niches when Glover hired poet and memoirist Reginald Dwayne Betts as assistant manager at the Bowie Store in June 2005. That Karibu hired Betts despite his criminal record rang true with a famous maxim: A man is not defined by his past but his actions. “I got three felonies”—for carjacking with a loaded weapon—“and this guy is letting me make $3,000 deposits,” Betts told the Post in an Oct. 2, 2006 article. When he became a manager in January 2006, he decided to give young Black men something he never had—a safe place that made it cool for them to talk about books. In February 2006, he started the YoungMenRead book club at the Bowie store.
During its 15-year run, the company sponsored hundreds of in-store and community events. Among those were the free monthly writing workshops that the Black Writer’s Guild presented at the store. According to McDonald, the former marketing director, this gave “access to many folks who may want to write but can’t afford the existing writing resources.”
But those services came to a halt in 2008, when Karibu announced it was closing its six stores—starting with the store in Pentagon City, and then the store at Security Square Mall. The three remaining Prince George’s stores closed on Feb. 10, 2008. According to reports, internal issues led to the closings. Ask the founders and they’ll tell you they’d rather move forward instead of looking back. “I think everything has a season….We did Karibu, it was that, but that’s not the end of the story,” Wilkerson-Glover said. “To know that out of nothing came Karibu is to know something greater will come from what they learned [from Karibu].”
The announcement was a hard pill to swallow for the Black community, which paused for a moment of silence as they considered what was being lost. Among those mourners was Paul Coates, owner of Black Classic Press, a Baltimore publishing house that used Karibu to promote its authors. “As a publisher we’ve lost a major outlet,” Coates told the Sun. “But more importantly, our community has lost an institution.”
In a Jan. 24, 2008 blogpost, Azizi Books, an African-American bookstore at Lincoln Mall in Matteson, Ill., issued a statement on Karibu’s closing: “This store has been a huge inspiration for us…. In an environment where independent book stores are shutting their doors faster than ever, knowing that Karibu Books was alive, kicking, and achieving success was a message to us that we could do it too. We looked up to Karibu. This is truly a sad event.”
“Two people called me, crying on the phone,” Jonathan Robinson, who has managed the Bowie store for two years, told the Post.
As news continued to travel, Christopher Chambers, a Silver Spring author and Georgetown University professor who has done readings and moderated panels at Karibu, told the Post he received more than a dozen emails, including one from bestselling author Walter Mosley. “Some of these other stores have been hanging on by fingernails from the beginning, small storefront shops that sold incense, greeting cards, figurines and books as a sideline,” he said. But “this was a real chain with real brick-and-mortar stores.”
And no matter what occupies those spaces now, that cultural void still lingers among what were once the bricks and mortars of a community. That’s what makes it difficult to walk through Bowie Town Center, Forestville and Iverson malls and not stop to consider that void. If you listen long enough, you might still hear a community in mourning.