Black-owned bookstores and the black power movement

posted by Tim Carmody   Feb 01, 2017

Historian Joshua Clark Davis has a terrific essay on how civil rights organizations, especially black power and black nationalist groups, helped spur a boom in black-owned bookstores in the US in the sixties and seventies. In turn, these bookstores became key organizing centers, arts hubs, and distributors of black literature and political information.

As late as 1966, most American cities—including major centers of black population such as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Oakland, and New Orleans—had not had a single black-oriented bookstore. Each of the country’s largest cities and centers of black population, including New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles, could claim one or in some cases two black-interest bookstores, most of which struggled to stay in business. Just a few years later, however, black bookstores were booming. Between 1965 and 1979, the number of black-themed bookstores in the United States skyrocketed from around a dozen to somewhere between seventy-five and one hundred. Most of these stores were owned and operated by activists with ties to a wide range of black radical groups, including the Black Panther Party, SNCC, the Congress of Afrikan Peoples, the East, and a variety of lesser-known groups in local communities across the country.

Indeed, the very idea that black people needed their own bookstores drew directly on black-nationalist values of institutional and community control. In the late 1960s and ’70s, black-owned bookstores thrived alongside other activist businesses that emerged out of the era’s social movements, including feminist storefronts, environmentalist natural food stores, and countercultural head shops that promoted the drug legalization and anti-war causes.

Davis’s book From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs looks at this wider post-60s world of counterculture commerce, and how those roots grew into some very unexpected branches. Exciting stuff.