Black conservative Armstrong Williams struts before an exacting book crowd, waxing romantic about his down-South, bootstrap beginnings. He’s trying to sell his new book, Beyond Blame, but the audience at Vertigo Books is more interested in his oft-mentioned suggestion that affirmative action should be rubbed out. When Williams finally opens the session to questions, students from Howard University pounce, challenging him to suggest other ways to overcome years of discrimination that hindered minorities’ entry into the mainstream workplace. Williams sputters, but nothing he says takes hold. His audience remains skeptical.
“He didn’t think he was going to find a group of young, thinking black people,” says one woman later, as the crowd spills out of the bookstore and onto the Connecticut Avenue sidewalk, where the debate continues without Williams.
People come to Vertigo for more than the latest titles by black writers. During a recent lunch hour, Sam Fulwood, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, arrives with a manila envelope in his hands. He paces the floor for a few minutes before ambling to the rear of the building in search of advice about the cover art for his upcoming book. “What do you think?” he asks Vertigo owner Todd Stewart.
“I wanted an honest critique from somebody who has a lot of insight into the publishing industry,” Fulwood explains. “There are a lot of toadies who tell you what you want to hear. The folks at Vertigo have been very, very helpful to me.”
Impromptu book-art critiques and heated political debate are standard fare at Vertigo Books. Only four years old, the store has become a retail microcosm of black intellectual life—a place where identity and commerce come together. One day, Williams discusses African-Americans’ need to shed government protection; another day, syndicated columnist and author DeWayne Wickham talks about his life in the Baltimore public housing projects in the 1950s without a mother and father.
“The store starts from Todd’s philosophy of inclusiveness,” says Bridget Warren,who is Todd’s wife, Vertigo’s co-owner, and the store’s walking PR firm. “Todd believes people have the right to see themselves in the books they read.”
But don’t look for some afternoon-teacum-book-signing at Vertigo. The bookstore is a place where the printed word is read,vilified, defended, and celebrated.
“It became obvious after doing six months of readings that people wanted to have discussions—that’s why we don’t just do signings,” says Warren. “Before we started the Sunday reading group, one of the customers came to me and said, “I think you should do this.’ I sometimes laughingly say the customers run the store.”
The District’s independent bookstores have a long history of being something beyond a retail stop-off. As far back as the early 1960s, when the Drum and Spear Bookstore sold everything from the sayings of Chairman Mao to Margaret Walker’s For My People, independent bookstores considered themselves players in the community’s intellectual and political life. Back then, black literature had few places to call home in the District.
“The atmosphere was totally different,” remembers Pyramid Books owner Hodari Ali. Pyramid opened in 1981, and for a time was the only black-owned bookstore catering primarily to an African-American audience. “By the end of the ’80s and ’90s, there was this explosion of African-American authors and publishers,” says Ali. “The net result is good, the public has more choices. It’s good for the writers because they have more options.”
During the early 1980s, the bookstore Common Concerns was at the heart of the burgeoning relationship between activism and authors. Located just a few doors from Vertigo’s present home at 1337 Connecticut Ave. NW, the store billed itself as a center for Third World literature and featured a large selection of scholarly journals and small press publications. Despite its popularity, financial problems forced the store to close, creating a void that left many District African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians scrambling to find books by or about them.
Before the ashes of Common Concern had gone completely cold, other bookstores catering to special interests cropped up, each looking to tap into local readers’ passions and pocketbooks.
Faye Williams was on her way to law school when she stopped dead in her tracks. At age 40, she decided it was “put-up-or-shut-up” time. She opened Sisterspace and Books on U Street NW less than a year ago.
“If it didn’t work I could cry my heart out and then go out and get myself a regular job,” she remembers thinking. Williams shopped at African-American and women’s specialty stores like Pyramid and Lammas Women’s Books, and decided she wanted a store that combined her two favorite interests. She set off in search of financing.
“I just talked it up,” Williams continues. “I’d say, “I want to open this store but I don’t have any money; I need your support.’ We had a lot of discussions about what was happening in the community with Vertigo, Lammas, Pyramid, and other stores. I wanted to have books on African-American women.” One of Williams’ primary selling points was retail demographic studies suggesting that women purchase between 70 to 80 percent of the books sold in the area.
Hustling books is no easy gig, as Williams soon learned. There are the hassles of convincing distributors to place books in the store. If the store doesn’t move enough books, it won’t be part of any author’s book tour. The odds and hours are long, and the margins tiny. But owning a bookstore is a dream realized for Williams: “I wanted to make some kind of contribution to African-American women and the whole black community,” she says.
Beyond the fickle tastes of readers and competition from like-minded independents, there is the very real threat posed by megamarketers like B. Dalton, Crown, and Borders. These chains’ buying power allows them to low-ball publishers on price and pass along savings to customers. Now that there is growing interest in the works of black writers and other writers of color, chain booksellers have been making efforts to capitalize on the trend.
Ali of Pyramid Books claims that during one of his stores’ tenure in Prince George’s Plaza, staffers from B. Dalton came, wrote down the titles of books, and left. Later, he says, those books became part of an expanded African-American studies section at B. Dalton. It wasn’t long before the competition with the chain became too much and he closed his store—other branches in Northeast and Southeast were closed as well. Pyramid’s sole remaining outlet is on Georgia Avenue NW.
“We didn’t have the money to compete with their buying power,” explains Ali.
Casual book shoppers are drawn to the discounted prices of large bookstores, but more passionate buyers are very particular about where they shop: “Borders and Crown are not providing the cultural variety we need,” says Joanna Banks, a bibliophile who has more than 5,000 books in her collection. Banks buys many of her books from Vertigo, and has encouraged its owners not to permit anyone attending a reading at the store to enter with a book purchased from one of the superstores.
“It’s frustrating,” admits Warren, “when you put a lot of work into readings and someone buys a book from a superstore. Big stores like Borders are not supporting writers. They often benefit from our hard work.”
The big guys’ advantage is mitigated by independents’ ability to go deep, to specialize in ways that generic bookstores can’t afford. But the search for a piece of the special interest market often forces small owners to compete against each other for media attention, customers, and cash.
There have been attempts to differentiate within the niche. For example, Sisterspace caters to African-Americans, particularly women. Vertigo augments its black titles with a healthy selection of books by and for Latinos and Asians. Pyramid’s speciality is black America and Africa.
“On one level, we’re competing, but on another, we aren’t,” says Williams. “There is enough money, enough energy, enough ideas for all of us.”
Nonetheless, small bookstores must angle for as large a customer base as they can. A loyal few aren’t sufficient to keep many of the stores open. Consequently, auxiliary activities—book signings, panel discussions, and reading groups—have become a major vehicle for attracting and keeping customers.
Vertigo has earned a reputation for aggressiveness in developing supplemental programs. Warren spends hours lobbying publicity executives at publishing houses to choose Vertigo for a hot author’s tour. And she hasn’t been shy about making sure that her store gets the lion’s share of the more sought-after appearances.
“They are able to pull people in before we can,” says Williams of Sisterspace, adding that on at least one occasion, Vertigo impeded her store’s ability to get an author. Williams reasons that because Warren is white, she has a better relationship with publishing houses than some of the black-owned stores in the city. “I mean, look: The people she’s talking to in the industry are just like her,” Williams says. “When they have to make a choice between me and her, who do you think they are going to choose?”
Some black bookstore owners privately raise concerns about Vertigo’s white owners, arguing that African-Americans and other people of color should buy their books at black-owned stores.
Warren is quick to take on questions about the race thing. “We’re owned by a small, racially mixed group of investors,” she says, ticking off names like Derek Hsu of the Old Forest Book Shop in Georgetown, and A’elia Bundles, great granddaughter of African-American entrepreneur Madame C.J.Walker.
“We have a lot of partnerships in the community. We are going to be presenting projects in conjunction with the Anacostia Museum, the Network of Educators on the Americas, the Institute for Puerto Rican Arts and Culture. And we already work with the Prince George’s County Library,” Warren says. “But I don’t know how to respond to that. I’m white. I can’t get around that.”
E. Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard University’s Afro-American Resource Center and the host of the WPFW radio show Vertigo on the Air, lauds the cultural mix of Vertigo’s owners, investors, and customers. He suggests that independent bookstores may need to build coalitions with other racial and ethnic groups in order to prosper.
“It’s the type of store that shows what we can do,” Miller says. “The audience that is brought in includes Asian-Americans, African-Americans, Latinos, whites. They’re all in this one space. Culture serves as a foundation, a bridge.”
“When people think about Washington and a bookstore,” he continues, “I want them to think about Vertigo. It’s a model of how people can cooperate.”
There won’t be any quiet corners for reading on Sept. 9, when Vertigo takes its show on the road to All Souls Church for a “Literary House Party.” In between sets by jazz saxophonist Buck Hill and his quartet, Walter Mosley (Bill Clinton’s favorite mystery writer) will evoke the ghost of the New York blues artist, Soupspoon—the protagonist of his latest novel, RL’s Dream.
“It harks back to the Harlem Renaissance when writers were supported by rent parties,” says Fulwood. The party is an effort to raise the money to continue the store’s programs, especially those featuring developing writers. “We want our customers to know about writers like Henry Lewis, author of In the Arms of Our Elders,” adds Warren.
Customers have gotten involved, hoping to ensure that Vertigo doesn’t suffer the fate of Common Concerns. Banks is selling tickets and another customer, Kathleen Haley, has been on the phone hustling authors willing to be auctioned as luncheon dates.
“Our customers are investors, even when they haven’t invested cash,” says Warren.
Independents like Vertigo survive or fall on the intimate bond forged with books: “One Christmas, I was wrapping books for a regular customer,” Warren recalls. “And she said to me, “I want to thank you for the friendships that I’ve formed here and the people I’ve met over the years.’
“It’s that kind of thing that makes a day easier to get through.”