A distinct and delightful smell wafts through the air in MahoganyBooks—a combination of the scent of book pages and potpourri. This, apparently, is something co-owner Ramunda Young says many people mention when they first walk into the store. She doesn’t reveal exactly what the smell is, but says that she does have a few potpourri concoctions going.
The store itself is a cozy one, with warmth and that sweet, inviting smell calling out to potential customers in the Anacostia Arts Center. Store walls are lined with black books of all kinds: contemporary and ancient, memoirs and science fiction; the best works of writers like Toni Morrison, Jesmyn Ward, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Junot Díaz.
It’s not hard to find what you’re looking for here: A man recently came in, Ramunda says, and found a book he’d been seeking out for 10 years.
Behind the register, the MahoganyBooks logo is huge and bright, depicting a young black girl sporting two Afro puffs with her head buried in a book too big for her body. In a corner are the store’s branded t-shirts: black with “Black Books Matter” written on them in bold letters.
“People say it feels like love in here,” Ramunda, 43, says. She and her husband, Derrick, 40, originally opened MahoganyBooks in 2007 as an online-only book retailer.
“We knew we wanted to have a business. We have entrepreneur spirits,” she says. “So we thought online people would have access to these books. No matter where you were, now you have access to all these black books.” But, as Derrick says, the overall strategy for the Northern Virginia couple was always to open up a physical bookstore.
“For us, it’s always about the people, it’s always about the community,” he says. “Bookstores are part of our value base. So, in trying to figure out how to get there, the idea was ‘let’s grow and start an online bookstore first and we can build a brand.’”
In November of last year, the Youngs opened their brick-and-mortar shop in the Anacostia Arts Center, and held a grand opening last month to coincide with Black History Month. It was important to them to stock books for everyone, whether 83 or 13 years old, like the couple’s daughter, Mahogany. Originally, they considered Virginia, Maryland, and other parts of D.C. for their first physical store, but ultimately, they wanted to be in Anacostia, where their core clientele lives.
Derrick says it felt like a perfect fit—a location where their community is and where they’re needed, especially considering a new bookstore hasn’t opened east of the Anacostia River in more than 20 years. Since they opened, they’ve had customers come from all around the region—including Haymarket, Virginia, and Gaithersburg, Maryland—as well as folks from right around the block.
“I think we were supposed to have it online for 10 years,” Ramunda says. “We were able to cultivate all of these people who believed in us, all these supporters. When we opened, those people came with us.”
Derrick agrees, implying that it would’ve been a bad move to open a brick-and-mortar shop in 2007, a particularly fraught economic period, especially for physical bookstores. From 2002 to 2011, the American Booksellers Association reported a decline in bookstores in the country—from about 2,400 to about 1,900. There’s been a resurgence in recent years, though, with the ABA now reporting that, between 2009 and 2015, the number of independent booksellers grew from 1,651 to 2,227. Still, in that number there are very few black-owned bookstores, especially ones that mostly sell books by black authors.
MahoganyBooks isn’t just a bookstore owned and operated by black people, it’s a store that proudly boasts that they “sell books written for, by, or about people of the African diaspora.” About 90 to 95 percent of the books are by black authors. There’s also a section of books from non-black people of color. Mostly, it’s a store that sells books about the unique experience of being black, something Derrick and Ramunda don’t shy away from, just as Toni Morrison didn’t shy away from it in her writing: “I’m writing for black people,” she told The Guardian in a 2015 interview, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old coloured girl from Lorain, Ohio.”
A store like MahoganyBooks is something of a miracle: For years, chain stores and online retailers have caused independent bookstores to struggle. But now even the chains are struggling, with Borders going out of business in 2011 and Barnes & Noble stores closing left, right, and center. Most recently in the D.C. area, a beloved Bethesda Barnes & Noble closed in January after 21 years of business. It was open for two decades, which is just as long as the area east of the Anacostia River had been a barren book desert. Though there has been a recent effort to crowdfund for a community bookstore in Anacostia to honor Charnice Milton, the 27-year-old journalist who was fatally shot in Southeast.
The Anacostia River has been a kind of dividing line in the D.C. community in more ways than can be adequately accounted for—one of which is book culture. But a bookstore is never just a bookstore; it brings with it a culture of creativity, imagination, and education. Its very existence fosters knowledge and inquisitive minds. On the other side of the river, there’s Politics and Prose, Upshur Street Books, Capitol Hill Books, Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe, Busboys and Poets, Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe, and others. On this side—the side that is home to poor black people—there was nothing.
“People need to know how this country came to be, how this continent came to be,” Ramunda says. “The books on these shelves are critical for them, they’re critical for us, they’re critical for our development, they’re critical for our self-esteem. Black books play into the huge fabric of who we are as people.”
Derrick and Ramunda are dedicated to keeping MahoganyBooks in the community for the long haul. Neighbors and residents are thirsty for what they’re selling, because the power of black literature is undeniable.
Celebrated black Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who the Youngs recently sold books for at a library event, often speaks of the danger of the single story, the problems that come with having one image of a thing, of a people. When she began reading black books, she says, it transformed her. “My perception of literature changed when I started reading African literature,” she said in a recent interview with The Atlantic. “Feeling a greater sense of connection with those books, feeling that there’s something different about this because it felt close and it felt familiar.”
After discovering those books, she went on to write Americanah, a novel for which she won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle’s Fiction award and was also named by The New York Times as one of the top 15 books by women in the 21st century.
If the customers who came in on a recent Sunday afternoon in March are any indication, MahoganyBooks is here to stay. “I love that you opened a bookstore,” black writer Brianna S. Clark tells the co-owners, gratitude evident on her face. She drove down from Baltimore to come into the store, she says. She wrote a book herself, Cracked, and wanted to bring them a copy.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that one bookstore can’t change the world. But it can certainly change its community, and before Derrick and Ramunda, that wasn’t even an option. “When we say black books matter, it’s us taking ownership and not relying on what other people promote and merchandise,” Derrick says. “It’s us taking ownership of our story, not having someone else tell it.” It is ending the idea of the single, tragic story of black people.
On that lazy Sunday, with free jazz playing out in the lobby of the Anacostia Arts Center, the co-owners help customer after customer. Many express joy at the fact that the store exists. Finally, the land east of the Anacostia River is an empty book desert no more.