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Black-owned bookstores in Mass. see surge in sales and, in Boston, some backlash

Zee Johnson, who turned a former drug haven into Olive Tree Books in Springfield, has been inundated with requests for books by Black scholars.
Zee Johnson, who turned a former drug haven into Olive Tree Books in Springfield, has been inundated with requests for books by Black scholars.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

There are more than 15 churches surrounding 93 Hancock St., a once-dilapidated drug house turned bustling bookstore in the Mason Square neighborhood of Springfield. Owner Zee Johnson feels right at home in this holy land of sorts, calling her Olive Tree Books a ministry specializing in the gospel of stories, community, and discussion.

The shop — one of just three Black-owned bookstores in Massachusetts — has served as a beloved community center in the predominantly Black neighborhood for over 15 years. Neighbors eyed Johnson as she toured the downtrodden home back in 2004, and then, once she bought it, helped her gut it and renovate it into the oasis it is today. Occasionally, someone will text Johnson with a reminder to turn off lights to keep her electricity bill down.

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“Everybody in the community feels like they own a bit of the bookstore,” said Johnson.

Of late the store owner has found herself answering a barrage of requests for books by such Black scholars as Ibram X. Kendi and Beverly Daniel Tatum from white customers from Boston to New Bedford to Virginia.

The surge in business mirrors a trend reverberating throughout the country. Americans are flooding Black-owned independent booksellers, as well as behemoths including Barnes and Noble, with orders for books on race in an attempt to confront and eradicate the prejudice and violence laid bare after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The flood of interest — demonstrated by New York Times bestsellers lists featuring book after book by Black authors — has left both bookstores and publishers scrambling to meet the demand.

Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” published in 2018 by the small nonprofit Beacon Press, has become that 166-year-old publisher’s best-selling book ever with more than 750,000 copies sold worldwide. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” has gone into its 13th printing. Sales of Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race” jumped to almost 36,000 copies the first week of June from less than 4,000 in the previous week, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

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Johnson said that more than 80 percent of her orders this month have come from new customers, some out of state. In a typical week before the nationwide protests and broader interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, she would sell 30 books. Since May 31, she has averaged more than 300 sales a week. She credits the steep increase in part to researcher Brene Brown, of TED Talks and Netflix fame, who included her shop on a list of the nation’s Black-owned independent booksellers.

The Frugal Bookstore worker Eric Anderson held his daughter Unique as he checked on inventory inside the store in Roxbury.
The Frugal Bookstore worker Eric Anderson held his daughter Unique as he checked on inventory inside the store in Roxbury.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Johnson relies on text and phone orders and has no online shop because she likes to establish relationships with her customers, an aspect of her business she lost completely during the height of the pandemic. Everyone has been supportive of her business and understanding of the delays in delivering the most popular books of this moment, she said.

But in Roxbury, some of the customers of Frugal Bookstore, the only Black-owned bookshop in Boston, have not been so patient. Owners Clarissa and Leonard Egerton told WBUR they were on the brink of closure in early May. The couple launched a GoFundMe page May 2 titled “Help Keep Frugal Bookstore Alive,” prompting a cascade of small-dollar community donations that totaled over $42,000. A month later, in the days following Floyd’s death, orders surged so much that the couple had to hire two new employees to keep up.

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Nevertheless, Frugal Bookstore, on Warren Street, is neither a fulfillment center nor a book publisher. With 20,000 orders — 75 percent of which are for the same 10 titles — since May 30, the independent seller is slowly working to meet each order. While most of the communications to the bookstore have been pleasant, the owners said, they have experienced a backlash from new customers demanding titles that have sold out nationally.

“We are also receiving a number of disheartening emails asking us to cancel orders and refund payments, criticisms about how slow we are and that we have poor customer service because we have not answered an email. We do hope each and every one of you who has shown us support by purchasing through our website believe we are not accepting your money with the intention to keep it and not send out your orders,” wrote the wife and husband team in a Monday e-mail to customers.

As news of the customer blowback spread, other Boston-area bookstores and community members were quick to point out the hypocrisy of harassing an independent Black business under the guise of solidarity and support.

“If you want to support a black-owned business, part of that is not being a [jerk],” wrote one Twitter user in a post that garnered over 18,000 likes in 24 hours.

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The third Black-owned bookstore is Susie’s Stories in Rockport.

Johnson, who is the sole employee of her Springfield shop, hopes that the current moment of racial reckoning and book sales on related topics will engender a new culture of informed dialogue, as well as an investment in Black communities. In recent weeks, readers and educators from surrounding areas, such as Longmeadow, have just discovered her shop in Mason Square and have committed to supporting her.

Like many Black business owners, however, she is painfully aware that the attention comes after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.

“But I’m a firm believer that things have to hit rock bottom in order for them to grow out of despair. Things had certainly hit rock bottom this May and the people said, ‘Enough is enough and we can do better,’” said Johnson, who also received her masters of social work degree this May after more than two decades since her college graduation.

At a time when so much of the book business has migrated online, Olive Tree has for 15 years served as a refuge for those walking the streets of Springfield. Johnson said she’s seen countless “people walk in broken, trying to regroup, grab a book and start to repair.” Her hope is that the same can happen throughout America.


Hanna can be reached at hanna.krueger@globe.com. Follow her on twitter @hannaskrueger.