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On Aug. 7, two days before opening her bookstore in Oxon Hill, publisher and novelist Toy Styles headed to a federal penitentiary to meet with her star writer.

She left her home in Owings Mills, Md., and drove through the night to Youngstown, Ohio. The next morning, she arrived at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center. At 6 a.m., she put her name on a list of visitors. Finally, after waiting in her car for two hours, she was allowed to see Jason Poole, 38, a well-known “street lit” writer with three novels to his name.

Styles, 34, is the head of fledgling publishing house the Cartel Publications, which released Poole’s most recent novel, Victoria’s Secret, in March. She and Poole have spoken every day since Poole was incarcerated last month. That morning, he walked out in an orange jumpsuit and picked up the telephone behind a glass wall. They were allowed to speak in person for roughly two hours.

“Whenever I talk to him, he always asks about the publishing house, he always asks about the bookstore. He’s just a positive person. I think most people under that condition want to cry about their problems,” she says.

Styles herself has written two novels as T. Styles for Triple Crown Publications, one of the bigger names in the pulpy, erotic, and violent world of urban fiction, and a dominating force in the “African-American Literature” section of chain bookstores. Last November, though, Styles decided to strike out on her own and start her own house.

A few months later, though, she was feeling antsy, like she should do more than publish books. She should find a place to sell them, too.

The epiphany was somewhat gradual. Styles had been reading old diaries stacked in her closet. (There were periods when she “journaled” every day—when her marriage was falling apart, when she was reckless and unhealthy, and felt suicidal and unworthy of her young son, Kajel.) She came across entries about an ex-boyfriend and decided to give him a call. Turns out he’d recently opened a club in Baltimore.

“He’d bought the club, and changed it around to a million-dollar club, beautiful. And I said, ‘Wow, what made you do that?’”

Like Styles, he was a fan of Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret and its message: “What you say and put out in the universe will come back to you,” Styles says about what she took away from the book.

Later, while taking a bath, an idea came to her in a decisive, detail-specific flash: “Open a bookstore, but in Eastover Shopping Center,” she says, referring to a strip mall just across the District line. “Mind you, I hadn’t been over to Eastover Shopping Center in years.” She’d lived near there years ago, though, and thought Oxon Hill really needed a bookstore to counter the liquor stores and other unsavory businesses.

For all her talk of The Secret and bathtub discoveries, Styles doesn’t come off as the New Age type. She grew up in Southeast, moved to Houston for several years with her mother and sister, then returned to the area, living in Temple Hills. She is a voluptuous, dark-skinned woman, with long straight brown hair and plump, glossy lips. She’s front and center on the main page of her company’s Web site: sunglasses on, turquoise dress, and jewelry gleaming like a just-washed luxury car, her cleavage exceptionally prominent.

Her business has grown steadily. She’s brought in writers, a designer, and put together a street team to promote books. She’s proud of her books and excited about sales. Yet she’s also aware that the street lit market is continually refreshed with new novels and new writers, many of whom are self-published. What if some new up-and-comer types her writers into oblivion?

Styles’ son, Kajel Powell, is one of three employees at the newly opened Cartel Café & Books in the Eastover Shopping Center in Oxon Hill, part of the Cartel publishing empire. (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Well, says Styles, that’s where the bookstore comes in.

“Either way, I’m going to get money,” she says. “I can’t lose.” Styles wholeheartedly trusts her instincts. To her, instinct is success.

“I believe the Cartel will be one of the largest, if not the largest, African-American publishing houses,” she says. “And I don’t allow other thoughts to enter my mind to change that. And because I believe that, it will happen.”

Styles began writing in 2003, when she was 28. She hated her job at Verizon as a customer service representative fielding complaints. Her brief marriage to Paul Styles, one of her co-workers, was ending. Two years earlier, before her engagement, she says she was so unhappy in her relationship that she tried to kill herself, drinking an excessive amount of vodka while downing pills, and that she woke up to paramedics pumping her stomach.

A love of literature did not lead Styles to her keyboard. One of her office friends began writing her own book and then left the job to complete it. To Styles, that was a powerful move. “I was always a hustler. I’m certified in massage therapy. I did modeling,” she says. Writing books just seemed like the next new thing to do.

Styles’ first novel, Rainbow Heart, was about a girl from Southeast coming to grips with her attraction to a female friend. Styles generated her plot based on what she knew about other street-lit titles, and what wasn’t already available. It was inverse inspiration: The “girl blossoming into her sexuality” book had been done, she decided. The “girl struggling to understand same-sex attraction” story was still up for grabs.

While writing the book, Styles was trying to climb out of her pit—her failing marriage, her body-image issues—by working out. She’d exercise at the gym in the apartment complex in Ellicott City where she lived with her husband and son. Then, in her workout clothes, she’d sit on a stool by her computer and compose her novel. Styles says her husband laughed when she used to read aloud to him. But then, she’s not terribly keen on the book these days, either.

“I don’t even like selling that book. It read like ‘See dog jump,’ ‘See Jack do this,’” she says.

Rainbow Heart took Styles about six months to write. She passed it on to one of her co-workers at Verizon, Charisse Washington, who offered to help edit it. Their relationship has clearly flowered: Washington is now vice president of the Cartel, and the two women live together with their sons. (Styles declines to say if their relationship is romantic. “We don’t want people to get lost in our personal life and mix it up with what’s happening to our company,” she says. Washington declined comment.)

In 2004, Styles sent copies of her self-published novel to roughly a hundred bookstores throughout the country, hoping they would call her back to order copies and schedule author meet-and-greets. She received about 15 requests.

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At a signing at the now-closed Karibu Books in Prince George’s Plaza, Styles kept overhearing customers asking for books from Triple Crown Publications, a Columbus, Ohio-based house run by writer turned publisher Vickie Stringer. Stringer, one of street lit’s queens, has helped make star authors of Nikki Turner and K’Wan, who now have deals with mainstream New York publishing houses. Stringer’s own recent novels have been published by Atria Books, a subsidiary of giant Simon & Schuster.

Styles decided to pitch Triple Crown on an idea. “They didn’t have anything like a mother-and-son murder duo team,” she says. So she wrote A Hustler’s Son, whose characters were inspired by people she knows. For example, “Kelsi,” the son, is partially based on her son Kajel; both are extremely protective of their moms, though Kajel doesn’t sell drugs or, obviously, kill people with his mother. She followed that up with Black and Ugly, “a tale of four totally different friends from the same block, whose friendship is tested during a seemingly innocent game of Truth or Dare.”

Styles wrote both her follow-up novels back to back, one a week, for two weeks straight. After sending in several chapters of A Hustler’s Son to Triple Crown, she was told to submit a full manuscript. She was so nervous that Stringer wouldn’t like the book or would perceive her as a one-hit wonder that she wrote the second book just to prove her skill and have a back-up work for publication.

Early on, there were some bad signs. After turning in her two books, Styles says she received a verbal commitment for a $25,000 two-novel advance. Later, Stringer told her A Hustler’s Son needed so much work that the pair were worth only a $15,000 advance. Styles signed the contract. It was a foot in the door, and $15,000 isn’t bad for two weeks’ work.

Styles says she has no idea how many copies her titles have sold. She isn’t the only one groping for answers in the street-lit world: Accurate sales figures are hard to come by in a segment of the publishing industry where books are often hawked on the sidewalk and sold in barbershops and beauty salons­—anywhere likely readers are found.

Just head to Harlem, says Calvin Reid, senior news editor for Publishers Weekly. “If you walk up to 125th Street, there are street vendors along a huge section around St. Nicholas and Lenox,” he says.

Reid says he frequently hears about successful self-published books selling 10,000 to 15,000 copies. Popular titles under Triple Crown, he estimates, are likely selling between 40,000 to 50,000 copies.

Stringer “has very popular authors. I would be very surprised if she couldn’t hit numbers like that,” he says. Street lit “really has created a class of black commercial publishing,” says Reid. “Now, some of these houses will disappear, and some of these self-publishers will disappear, but I think already we’ve entered into another stage of what street lit can be, as we see some of these writers move on to mainstream publishing houses.”

Teri Woods, recent author of New York Times ’ bestseller True to the Game III, is published by Grand Central, whose authors also include Nicholas Sparks and Willie Nelson.

Next to your average James Patterson novel, the street lit tome can be a little jarring. Styles’ Black and Ugly opens with this line: “I knew I was ugly the moment my mother gave me a mirror.” Her themes blast out with a bullhornlike intensity.

On body image:

“I’m five feet, five inches, dark-skinned and thick to death,” announces Parade Knight, one of the book’s main characters. “I’m gonna be ugly today, and I’m gonna be ugly tomorrow. Might as well make the best of what God gave me. Right?’”

On friendship, jealousy, and betrayal:

“I often ask myself, ‘If Sky looks out for you, why do you fuck her man?’ My answer to that is this: the outfits, the perfume and Jay bring me closer to actually being her. That is, until he calls me an ugly black bitch or I look into the mirror.”

On sex without attachment:

“Leave the door open and don’t have shit on,” demands Sky’s boyfriend on his way over to Parade’s home.

On rough sex:

“I told you I’m not wit’ all that romance shit,” says the boyfriend when he arrives at Parade’s apartment. “We straight fuckin’, that’s it! When I come over her I want to see that ass naked and bent over on that sink.”

Styles quickly became a respected member of the Triple Crown stable. After publishing her two novels, as well as a short story in an anthology titled Street Love in May 2007, she received a letter soliciting pitches for a new concept. Triple Crown was launching a line of novellas modeled on the serial format of television shows like The Sopranos and Lost—10 books in 10 months, with the potential to receive $10,000 advances for each novel.

Toy Styles, above, with one of Cartel’s titles, Shyt List. (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

Styles sent a proposal for a series called “The Face That Launched a Thousand Bullets,” and in October, she received a letter from Mia McPherson, vice president of operations and editor in chief of Triple Crown, notifying her that her manuscript had been chosen.

Things were looking up. The next month, Styles had a book signing with Poole at the Urban Knowledge Bookstore in Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall. The two had spoken briefly on the phone before but had never met in person. She was a fan: Poole’s first novel, Larceny, is an Essence bestseller, and Styles considers it a street-lit classic.

At that time, Poole had been out of prison for less than a year. In 1997, he was sentenced to 262 months as a career offender, his past convictions including robbery, intent to distribute cocaine, and possession with intention to distribute cocaine. In mid-winter 2007 he was released following a complicated legal filing regarding his conviction and sentencing.

“From day one that I came out, I knew I was going to be something greater than I was when I came in,” says Poole, calling from a prison in Fort Dix, N.J., where he was transferred this month.

After the signing, Poole and Styles grabbed dinner. The two talked about Poole’s case and the prosecutor’s push at the time to restore his sentence. Style’s tried to inspire him to stay upbeat. “I love her so much,” says Poole. “I haven’t loved a person like that in so long.”

Poole began writing Larceny after a girlfriend complimented his writing style and encouraged him to experiment with fiction-writing. The book came out in July 2004. Since then, he’s written Convict’s Candy with fellow prisoner Damon “Amin” Meadows, and Victoria’s Secret. “It’s about new age pimping,” Styles says of the latter book. “The main character falls in love with his bottom ho.” (That is, his top prostitute.)

By late 2007, Victoria’s Secret was going through rounds of editing at Triple Crown, and the slow process was making Poole think about testing out a new publisher.“He thought [Stringer] was trying to stall, like she wasn’t really trying to get the book,” says Styles. So when Poole suggested that Styles publish the book, she spied an opportunity.

This move, Styles notes, upset Stringer. The two women spoke about the new publishing venture, and Styles let it be known that her ambitions were serious. Stringer still had the rights to Styles’ 10-part series, though. Then, this past Jan. 25, Styles received an unexpected letter.

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<9.000000>You may benefit from the editorial suggestions and changes that have been made to the manuscript, and are free to publish this title under “The Cartel Publications” or otherwise if you choose.

On Saturday, Aug. 9, Cartel Café & Books opened in the Eastover Shopping Center. The Cartel’s Web site had launched on New Year’s Day, and Styles promoted it heavily through her MySpace page. She scheduled a photo shoot with her staffers, Vice President Charisse Washington and Editor-in-Chief Jacquelyn Canty-Russell (who’s still pictured on the site despite leaving the company in March), and her 2006 black Cadillac Escalade. Drawing on her fans, she established a street team tasked with encouraging bookstores to carry Cartel publications. She also created a “pep squad” to work solely online, finding other street-lit fans on MySpace and tipping them to upcoming Cartel books and events.

“I don’t pay for any type of promotion,” Styles says.

Doors were supposed to open at 10 a.m. But after Styles returned from visiting Poole in Ohio, she stayed up until 1 a.m. getting ready, and there were still things left to be done. So she pushed back the start time until 4 p.m.

At roughly 3 p.m., the store’s popcorn machine was plugged in and a table was set up by the door for author signings. Kajel, 17, dressed in a black shirt, manned the front of the store.

The store is bare compared to your average Barnes & Noble. There are no stand-alone shelves; books are placed on wire ledges on the walls. But there’s plenty of furniture. There are several small circular tables, with black tablecloths, fake bouquets on top, and tiny black stools pushed underneath. There are also two black chairs that look like a cross between a cot and a chaise longue.

Besides street-lit titles, which are usually grouped by publishing house, Styles’ store includes a children’s section and some non-fiction and Christian literature, though the latter two categories have, thus far, been the least popular, says Styles. People request certain titles but never retrieve them.

As for the café side of the operation, that will be up and running next month, says Styles. But don’t expect much, just some muffins and coffee. Styles also plans to hold an open mic every other Friday evening for writers and poets.

For the opening, Styles is dressed in black leggings, a black shirt, and two-toned green stilettos. She pauses from fussing over the party setup to talk about how sales were doing. A national distribution company, Baker & Taylor, ordered a significant chunk of Victoria’s Secret’s initial print run of 5,000 copies, she says.

“The only books we have left are here in the store,” she says. “Usually with the reprint, you get less than what you get when you start out. But, like I said, since Baker & Taylor have been ordering a lot of his books for libraries all of our books actually—we have to up the reprint.”

It was a bittersweet celebration for Styles, who was missing Poole. In late July, not long before the grand opening of Cartel, Poole was re-sentenced to 262 months in prison and ordered to surrender himself.

In his short time outside of prison with Cartel, Poole was not only the company’s star author but also a part-time employee and steady support, according to Styles. He read manuscripts and worked on screenplay adaptations of his novels. “I write screenplays better than I write books. I have another novel that I’m writing, too,” Poole says. He also traveled—to St. Louis, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia—promoting his book.

After all, he was locked up when his first titles came out. “Toy is one who told me, ‘Hey, you’re Jason Poole,’” he says. “She’s the one who told me I was a bigger person in this game.”

“He actually helped catapult the company more. He wasn’t just talking about Victoria’s Secret but the Cartel in general,” Styles says. “When he got locked back up, everyone was shocked because when he told people it was a possibility for him to go back to prison, he was always so upbeat and positive.”

Two recent Cartel books are written by unfamiliar names. One is Reign’s Shyt List, a novel set in Southeast, about a girl whose high-school sweetheart is killed by her father. The other is Mikal Malone’s Pitbulls in a Skirt, which centers on a clan of hustlers’ girlfriends in Emerald City, “one of D.C.’s deadliest projects.”

Both books were, in fact, written by Styles. Rather than release the already-planned sequels to Black and Ugly (Black and Ugly as Ever) and A Hustler’s Son (A Hustler’s Son II) right away, she wanted readers to be hungry. So, she decided to launch with some strong “unknowns.” But she does have some genuine new writers in her stable: Styles has rounded out her 2008 list with novels by two new authors: K.D. Harris, a 33-year-old Comcast customer account executive from New Castle, Del., and Eyone Williams, a convict from D.C. who contacted Poole in prison. Nine titles have already been chosen for 2009, with room for three more manuscripts.

Street lit has many such authors—people who pick up a pen one day and yearn to be published the next.

“When someone reads Toni Morrison, the first impression is not: I can do this,” says Patrik Henry Bass, senior editor of Essence. “When someone reads some of the street fiction titles, their first impression is: I can do this.”

For eight years, Bass has overseen Essence’s bestseller list, which is based on sales figures from selected African-American bookstores throughout the country. Over the past few years, Bass says he’s seen more titles and more new authors published, though sales for individual books aren’t generally increasing. Yet, Bass does believe there is room in the urban fiction landscape for a new powerhouse. Styles “absolutely has potential,” he says.

“It’s been a while since someone has given us that Mid-Atlantic flavor and T. Styles does that, not in the way Zane”—the Largo-based New York Times bestselling author—“did it, in terms of erotica,” but “in terms of the urban themes.”

Bass says the writing itself will be “almost secondary” in determining Styles’ fate. Street lit, like a lot of genre fiction, is full of formulaic and predictable writing. A quick perusal of the titles reveals certain themes: Besides Styles’ A Hustler’s Son, there’s Nikki Turner’s A Hustler’s Wife and Forever a Hustler’s Wife, not to mention Turner’s A Project Chick, Mallori Mcneal’s Down Chick, or other Triple Crown releases like Grimey, Sheisty and Still Sheisty.

“Street fiction is serving an audience that has been neglected for some time. They’re capitalizing on the ADHD generation,” says Bass. “There is always a redemptive tale. Goodness will win over in the end.”

Books like these have, not surprisingly, been criticized for debasing black writing. Styles says the appropriate names of her genre are street lit, hip-hop fiction, urban fiction, and street fiction. She disapproves of terms like “ghetto fiction” and “smut.” “That would probably get people slapped,” she says. She recalls a 2006 New York Times op-ed piece by Nick Chiles, a magazine editor who’s published fiction and non-fiction. In the piece, “Their Eyes Were Reading Smut,” Chiles bemoans the preponderance of street lit in the “African-American Literature” section in mainstream bookstores. “I realize that publishing is a business, but publishers also have a responsibility to balance street lit with more quality writing.…At times, I push myself away from the computer in anger. I don’t want to compete with ‘Legit Baller.’ But, then I come across something like ‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones and again I am inspired.”

In response to an interview request about the genre, Borders Inc. released a bullet-point list titled “Street Lit Vs. Literary.” The document notes that while Borders mixes urban fiction titles in with Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and other renowned black writers, its “weighty editorial voice” directs readers to more literary and acclaimed works through a variety of programs and initiatives. Street-lit books never make the cut.

“While we have a commitment to CARRYING a huge variety, what we CHOOSE to support with very powerful marketing and exercising our editorial voice clearly illustrates to our customers what Borders feels is of value and important in terms of Af-Am titles,” the memo also states.

“They’re doing customers a disservice,” Styles says of Borders’ argument. By never elevating street-lit novels from a corner of the store, the retailer is disrespecting her field. “What they’re doing is allowing people like me to come in.”

On a recent sunny weekday afternoon at the bookstore, Styles sits in the back while Kajel hangs out by the register. The front doors are wide open. The store is empty. Styles is working on one of her many novels—there are 14 of them, she says, although only five have been published.

Right now, Kajel, Styles, and Washington are the store’s only employees. Soon, Styles hopes to hire other staff-members so she can devote more time to writing and doing publishing work. The first week of store sales was strong—$1,800 to $2,000, Styles estimates.

After a few minutes, two women wander into the store and slowly make their way up the left wall toward Styles, commenting on the titles and generally admiring

the selection.

“You sell used paperbacks?” says one woman, approvingly, spotting a display of slightly worn titles. Her back is to Styles; her orange T-shirt says respect forever in a scrawled typeface by her shoulders. She points out The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah. She first read the book in high school, 11 years ago, and since then has read it “like, nine times.”

Soon her friend Sakeithia Jackson, a Southeast resident, wanders back toward Styles.

“You got anything from D.C.?” she asks. Styles tells her about Victoria’s Secret and hands a copy to the woman. She recognizes Poole’s name. Styles also mentions some other popular titles: “Shameless Hoodwives and Desperate Hoodwives, those are good, but they’re not from D.C.”

Both women are avid fans of street lit. They read a couple of titles a month and often have impromptu book clubs when they discover friends are also reading the same new releases.

“It only takes about two days to finish a book, if you ain’t got nothing to do,” says Jackson. She adds: “You find yourself trading [the books], and you don’t get them back.”

Both women are delighted to discover there’s finally a bookstore in their region. They also count Poole’s Larceny as one of their favorites. Poole himself apparently has fans in prisons—a sign outside of the store notes that it ships to inmates.

“He was Jason Poole. He wrote classic novels, he got locked up, and he got treated like that. So, that made it easier that people respected who he was,” Styles says.

Fellow inmates occasionally would come by with his books, she says. Sometimes, when she calls him, prison friends hear that she—T. Styles, the urban fiction author—is on the phone and they want to say hello.

“They treat him like a king,” says Styles.