Karibu's next chapter

THE BALTIMORE SUN

James L. King bound into the room, energizing an intimate group of African-American women who had come to the Karibu bookstore in Hyattsville one recent evening to hear him talk about his latest best-selling book about the closeted lives of ostensibly straight black men who sleep with other men.

"We're going to get this party started," he bellowed, causing the women to burst out in laughter.

King has sold millions of copies of his two books, On the Down Low: A Journey into the Lives of "Straight" Black Men Who Sleep With Men and Coming Up From the Down Low: The Journey of Acceptance, Healing and Honest Love. He's appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and his book tours include some of the biggest chains in the biggest cities. Yet even with his success he always makes sure to include stops at black bookstores such as Karibu.

For more than a decade, Karibu (ka-REE-boo) has been the dominant source in the Washington area for books about, and for, African-Americans - before mainstream stores began devoting sections to the genre. It has grown from a street-vending operation to a business with five locations.

In August, it plans to open its first store outside the Washington area at Security Square Mall in Woodlawn. How it fares will help determine whether Karibu - "welcome" in Ki-Swahili - moves into other markets such as Philadelphia.

Karibu's growth into a chain is unusual for an independent niche bookseller, say people in the publishing and book business.

"It's hard for small, independent booksellers and you can add another twist to it for black book sellers," said Paul Coates, founder and director of Black Classic Press, a Baltimore publishing company. "They face a number of challenges. But Karibu's level of organization and their commitment just bears out in the organization that they've built."

The margins in book selling are slim, especially so for independents, which account for less than 10 percent of the market and can't afford to buy in the quantities that the large competitors do. Many owners of black bookstores enter the business because of their love of books or a desire to provide a service to the community, Coates and others said. They don't always have a strong business foundation.

"Independent booksellers have the same problems as any other small retailer," said Meg Smith, a spokeswoman for the American Booksellers Association, which represents 2,000 companies. "They have to be really good business people. They don't always have the resources to compete in the marketplace."

One of Karibu's owners formerly was an accountant with Ernst & Young. The owners have been selective about expanding, making certain they had ample capital and the right location. And the owners have learned to keep an eye on the changing tastes of customers.

Simba Sana and Yao Ahoto started Karibu with $500 as a street vending business in 1992. The two met at a black nationalist organization and found a shared interest in reading and black empowerment.

Home library

Ahoto's parents had an extensive library when he was growing up that exposed him to books about Malcolm X and other black leaders. Sana was more into The Hobbitt and Dungeons and Dragons in his younger days. He was turned on to black literature when a college professor, who was white, told him to read Soul on Ice, the prison memoir of Black Panther Party activist Eldridge Cleaver. Sana had gotten into an argument with a white student who made fun of his diction when the professor intervened, trying to give him a more productive way to diffuse his anger.

"I didn't know what a black book was until college," Sana said.

Sana and Ahoto peddled their goods, which included incense, oils and hats, throughout Washington and at college campuses such as Howard and Bowie State universities. In 1993, they opened their first mall locations - a kiosk at the then-Prince George's Plaza and a pushcart at Landover Mall. They converted the Prince George's Plaza location, now known as the Mall at Prince George's, into their first full-size store in 1994. Today, Karibu has four stores in Prince George's County and one at Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Va.

With its Woodlawn store, Karibu will join several other smaller book chains in the area that cater to the community's sizable African-American population, including Everyone's Place, Sepia Sand & Sable and Wisdom Books. Another popular store, Sibanye, closed in 2003 after sales slowed.

"What Karibu brings to the area is a whole new notion," said Coates, of Black Classic Press. "They bring a chain-type of reality to black book selling."

Security Square Mall had been trying to woo Karibu for several years, said Deidre Moore, vice president and general manager of the mall. She said the book chain has a wide following, one of the most extensive selections of titles she's seen and the owners are experts on African-American authors and books.

"I think they've been able to grow because they're focused," Moore said. "They haven't expanded too much too fast. They've only grown in a manner that they have the ability to support their stories financially, operationally and commercially."

Sana said relocating to Baltimore was a no-brainer once Karibu had built the foundation to expand. There is a large black population, but very few bookstores specializing in black literature. Sana thinks Baltimore is a better market than Washington in many ways because the people are more into black culture and there is a strong grass- roots base. At two recent signings for a book by civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams, Karibu sold 48 of the books at the Washington event and twice that in Baltimore.

Test market

Baltimore will be the test market for Karibu's expansion plans beyond the Washington market. If the Woodlawn store does well, Karibu hopes to open 15 to 30 more stores in the next two to five years.

"Baltimore is an underserved and undervalued market," Sana said. "We want to build a black cultural institution that is financially viable," he said.

Karibu sells more than 8,000 titles, including classics such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Isis Papers and The Miseducation of a Negro. But much of its selection comes from the large array of fiction titles by black authors that has arisen in recent years.

Karibu has developed much of its following by staying in tune with the community. The chain is host to book clubs, signings and readings. Local authors get a greater opportunity to promote their books than they would at bigger chains.

"We give authors a place where they get exposure for their books and where people can come have dialogue about our culture," Ahoto said. "We've given a voice to countless black authors."

King said of black stores after his signing event in Hyattsville, "They are the lifeblood of black authors, even mainstream authors like myself."

While browsing through books at Karibu's store at Bowie Town Center, Stella Williams said she shops at larger book chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders Books, but says their black book selection is never as extensive as Karibu's. "When I want anything by a black author, I know I can find it here," said the nurse, who lives in Bowie.

Michele Crosby, 34, was also at Karibu's Bowie store recently looking for books for her kids.

"It's real important that they see people who look like themselves," said the mother from Greenbelt, shopping with her 10-month-old son. "They don't always get it on TV. But you can try and get it in books. I know I'll find books like that here."

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