Sunday, June 5, 2011
Have you ever seen the underside of an up-rooted tree? Not a bush, not a stump, but a tree- a hundred foot solid oak. I have. There it was a toppled tree. I’m not really the off-road type, so I can’t recall the circumstances of where I was or where I was in route to when I saw it. I distinctively remember I was troubled by the sight. Maybe the tree was a casualty after a storm. What got me was that I could see its roots. They were so solid and strong and thick in its appearance that it reminded me of the tentacles of a mature size octopus. What force could unearth a tree at its roots? A tree that had been snapped in half would have made more sense to me. I remember wanting to contact the Audubon or Arbor Day Society to rite the downed pillar. There was nothing I could do on my own to return its boughs and branches to the skyline among it lofty counterparts. I was helpless.
I can’t help but equate the fall of that tree to the fall of our neighborhood institutions. I’ve seen them topple as well. I’m talking about neighborhood hallmarks like the bookstores that service our community. As a young writer I had seen the closing of Yawa Books and Sisterspace and Books down the historic U Street and Adams Morgan corridor where I spent my formative writing years in a biweekly writer’s critique group at the latter. One of my favorite local music fusion groups, formerly known as Fertile Ground has a song called “Broken Branches” that posed the question, “What about leaves on trees with broken branches? Where will they go after they had their dances in the wind?” I was a by product of that dynamic and eclectic synergy now I had no place to go. Gentrification had cut my tree at the roots before I was able to bear fruit, publish and have a book signing there.
I saw that actual collapsed tree about the same time one of the Maryland, DC Metro area brands, Karibu Books announced it was closing. It immediately reminded me of the void we would all surely feel when they closed for good. I felt that same helplessness. I loved that place. It was everything a bookstore should be - a cultural hub, meeting place, and resource center. It was vibrant in its color, clean, classic and celebratory of our culture.
I had been a patron and fan, standing in line to see so many talented authors of color to come through their more than four locations. I longed to have my books shelved somewhere between Brenda and Sheneska Jackson. It was like a venue all the stars traveled up Interstate 95 to make an appearance at. I was proud to be a writer and Prince Georgian when Karibu was open, knowing its Essence reporting bookstore status would elevate me to the bestseller list. I at least had a signing on the books for my debut release in 2007. To my chagrin, the chain closed before that dream could be realized. I knew I would write about the loss someday after lamenting, and mourn I did. I went into a funk.
I felt I was owed an explanation. There was no explanation good enough to explain why this institution crumbled or imploded the way it did so I concocted a tale. I wanted to believe the major bookstore chains like Barnes and Nobles, Borders or supercenters that now carried books like Walmart were driving out the mom and pop stores. In my mind it was like a sapling being denied the necessary nourishing light or water amongst the true giants. Maybe we weren’t doing enough as a community to feed the starving chain.
If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Karibu had matured and grown to a mighty oak. Reverberations and shockwaves could definitely be heard and felt after it closed. Now my question became could we find a home and could our audience find our books in a larger chain? Would they find value in the works of African American authors, shelve our books, comply with our need to be communal and host the type of events that led to sales even if our names aren’t on the bestseller list? The answer – some stores are better than others. It depends greatly on management and literary advocates. I imagine it is more difficult for my self-published counterparts.
I have since published three novels and done a good many book signings at a fair share of major bookstores and literary festivals. Life goes on and the publishing industry keeps changing. Even Borders has had to shout timber in recent years and close a couple hundred stores. Just when I felt my funk returning, the doom and gloom of a literary career cut down in its prime, I remember we’ve been here before. It was time to update the literary navigational system. Readers will always be there. It’s just that the route to find and retain those readers have changed. Where once you depended on knee cap to knee cap meet-ups the landscape has been cleared for virtual encounters and social media marketing.
I applaud the efforts of a good many African American bestsellers and literary pioneers that have forged their way into the innovative land of digital publishing. One group in particular has started A Chapter a Month (dot) com. These authors are literarily taking their readers on a literary ride as they craft their novels in real time, feeding them a chapter a month. Chapters can be downloaded to your PC or sent to your digital reader or mobile device. It shows the devotion to their readers and overall moxie of a group that refuses to be intimidated by the grim statistics of the industry right now.
So what have I learned from downed trees and publishing powerlines? Where there is a will there is a way. Cliché, I know, but where a need drives a demand. I shake off my funk with the realization that I wasn’t taken out by any fallen trees. I am not out of the ranking. Words continue to be my fascination, and storylines keep coming just like new saplings continue to be planted and will grow into our next literary institutions.