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Building a little haven with a huge impact

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As a jazzy version of "My Funny Valentine" plays in the background, Robin Green-Cary begins chatting with an elderly woman, a first-time customer at Sibanye, a boutique/bookstore in Baltimore's Park Heights neighborhood.

Green-Cary's personality seems to draw the woman out, and soon the customer is confiding in the shopkeeper about her children and her late husband, to whom she was wed for more than three decades. "I still miss him," the woman says.

Then the talk turns to business. As a senior, the customer has received a discount, but she's hoping for more. Can't you give me anything else off? she asks.

"You have your discount," the shop owner replies good-naturedly. "You wouldn't ask Mr. Hecht for any discount! You would just hand over your money."

Even if she wanted to, Robin Green-Cary is not about to give away the store she and partner Mary Douthit have built. It took too much hard work to make Sibanye what it is now: a small but significant landmark on Baltimore's African-American cultural landscape.

"We want this to be a black gem in the neighborhood," Green-Cary says. "People come from all over. Our mailing list shows a span of ZIP codes."

At Sibanye, which means "we are one" in Kiswahili, patrons can find clothing, jewelry, crafts and art, and also rub shoulders with some of the biggest names in African-American literature, who make the store a regular stop for readings and signings.

That element of the store is Green-Cary's passion and primary focus. And it's that element that will be on display this weekend at the Baltimore Book Festival, when the festival's Sibanye Stage hosts myriad authors.

"The month of September, I'm a Baltimore Book Festival zombie," Green-Cary says. "We bring in the vast majority of African-American authors for the festival."

Among those scheduled to appear this weekend are mystery writer Valerie Wilson Wesley, essayist and economist Julianne Malveaux and Christian fiction writer Kimberla Lawson Roby.

The figures on the festival stage surely will bring Sibanye notice, but the little 1,500-square-foot store already manages to pack in some big literary names, including best-selling authors Octavia Butler, Tina McElroy Ansa, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and E. Lynn Harris.

The credit for that goes to Green-Cary, a 42-year-old Baltimore native who has made it her mission to provide African-American authors with an outlet they might not find elsewhere.

Fiction writer Venise Berry, who will be at the festival, held a book signing at Sibanye in January. Berry says small, independent stores like Sibanye can make a huge difference in a writer's career.

"One of the things I've noticed is that it is very difficult to call a Barnes & Noble or a Borders and get a book signing," Berry says.

"African-American booksellers are the reason why my books are doing so well. They can literally hand-sell books," she says. "People come in and say 'What's good?' And if they have read my book and like it, they recommend it. It is surprising how much that helps."

More surprising, perhaps, is that Green-Cary, who has dipped her toe into everything from medicine to law to marketing to film, is in the bookstore business at all. Her journey to bookstore/boutique owner began just a stone's throw from where she now works.

"I used to walk by here going to Pimlico [Elementary School]," says Green-Cary, who is married to Andrew Cary and has two sons, Asa, 9, and Aaron, 5.

After graduating from Western High School, Green-Cary initially set her sights on becoming a physician and graduated from St. Andrews Presbyterian College in North Carolina in 1979 with degrees in political science and chemistry.

But medicine wasn't her calling. Instead, she took aim at the legal profession, specifically corporate law. She enrolled in law school at the University of Pittsburgh, where she got a law degree in 1982. Then came another realization.

"I found I didn't know a blessed thing about corporations or business," she said. So she returned to school and learned about those things, earning an MBA in 1983.

"I found out I loved business," says Green-Cary, who has smiling eyes behind her glasses. "I loved learning about small businesses."

But first came a stint working for large businesses. In Baltimore, she worked for a marketing firm, then moved to Los Angeles in 1986 to work for 20th Century Fox and later Disney.

"I got married, had a son and decided it was time to get out of L.A.," she says. There was more to it than that, she admits: The entrepreneurial bug bit her.

It was the birth of her first son that helped her decide just what kind of entrepreneur to be. She decided to focus on Afrocentric books and other items for children. She also decided Baltimore was more cost-efficient for such a business than Los Angeles.

She opened a toy store on Charles Street in October 1992 with former co-workers from her marketing life. It closed December 1995. "We were too far from the harbor but still in the high-rent district," she says.

She went back to work for three days a week at a law firm. On weekends, she lugged around children's books, selling them at festivals and around town before deciding she needed a permanent location.

A lawyer in the firm where she worked offered space in a building he owned, and Sibanye was born - but not without a little difficulty. "It was a disaster area," she says. "It was used to store and dump things."

There were also three other women - her proposed business partners - who needed convincing that they could make something of the place.

"I told them you've got to have vision!" Green-Cary says, her eyes sweeping the tastefully decorated room filled with books, art, clothes, cards, soaps and skin creams.

One of those who had to be convinced is Douthit, who is one of the original four partners. In a way, though, she was an easy sell.

"I always knew I didn't want to retire from anyone's corporation," says Douthit, who worked for IBM for 13 years. Two of the partners later went on to other ventures.

A ton of sweat equity by family and friends was poured into the building to get it up to par. Sibanye opened it doors on Sept. 9, 1994.

"It was a cooperative, initially," Green-Cary says. "We brought in vendors and split the costs" of expenses like marketing and staffing.

Now many of the original vendors have their own stores and Sibanye belongs to Green-Cary and Douthit. And in an era when giant corporate book chains are ruling the book business, Sibanye is holding its own.

Green-Cary's success in getting so many well-known writers to come to the store has a simple explanation: hard work and effort.

"I beg! I plead!" she admits.

She also began going to American Booksellers Association meetings and networking with publishers, publicists and authors.

Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati is a literary publicist who has worked with bookstore owners both large and small. Sibanye, she says, has built up a dependable reputation.

"Her consistency is the important thing," Lloyd-Sgambati says. "She has been a real trouper, holding on when chain stores are taking over."

Green-Cary and Douthit plan on doing more than holding on. They dream of making their little boutique even bigger.

"What we've done, we've done on a shoestring," Green-Cary says.

"Money is always an issue," agrees Douthit, who says they would one day love to expand the space and offer day spa services.

But right now, there is a customer to try to satisfy, even if she can't get a discount on top of the discount she's already receiving.

"Are you driving?" Green-Cary inquires, and hefts the woman's package. "Here," she says, "Let me help you put this in your car."

Sibanye is at 4031 W. Rogers Ave. (www.sibanye.com). The Sibanye Stage at the Baltimore Book Festival is co-hosted by radio station WEAA; hours and events are in today's LIVE section.

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