From Amazon warehouses to independently owned shops, books about Black history and racism are flying off shelves. Recent protests have spurred a buying binge that's pushed books such as Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility, which offers insights on how to productively address racism and Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped From the Beginning, which explores the history of racist ideas in the U.S., to the top of The New York Times Best Seller list for several weeks.
Black-owned bookstores have benefited from the renewed interest, but some mom-and-pop operations have struggled to keep up with the soaring demand.
"I've seen an increase, but sometimes it's bittersweet," said Carlos Franklin, co-owner of Black Stone Bookstore & Cultural Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan. "You get 2,000 people who want to order. Then 1,900 people who want to cancel because it ain't coming."
The same books cracking the bestseller lists are hard to keep in stock for smaller shops. White Fragility, for instance, is currently out of stock on Bookshop.org, an online marketplace for independent bookstores that gained popularity since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Black Stone launched its e-commerce website in March, right after shutting down temporarily due to the coronavirus. The timing was ideal, he added, as both protests and quarantine have helped drive sales.
The American Booksellers Association, a membership organization for independent book shops, provides technical support in fulfilling orders, but Franklin said keeping up with the kind of service customers now expect from online sellers is still a challenge for small businesses.
"They don't want to support Amazon, but they still want the Amazon treatment," Franklin said.
Franklin is also uncertain how he should adapt his business in the short-term because the current buying spree could peter out. Instead, he's taking a wait-and-see approach.
"Honestly speaking, it's feelings and emotions, and you know how feelings and emotions go. You have to catch it when you can," he said. "I do see a greater interest in bookstores and, in particular, Black-owned bookstores, but we won't know how that helps us or hurts us until it plays out."
While protests have brought a renewed interest in books about racism, a separate but related movement to push consumers toward Black-owned businesses has helped drive sales.
On Tuesday, July 7, activists and entrepreneurs alike celebrated Blackout Day 2020. The idea behind the day is to leverage Black spending power to send a message to the economy.
For one day, activists called on Black consumers to withhold their money, unless the business is Black-owned. Some activists have put more emphasis on the boycott aspect of the day, while others are using the opportunity to promote and drive sales for Black-owned stores.
The impact of the social media-powered movement is hard to measure, but in theory, it could mean a major drop in sales if consumers participate. Black spending power has grown from $320 billion in 1990 to $1.3 trillion in 2018, according to a report from Nielsen.
At Black and Nobel in North Philadelphia, Blackout Day seems to have drawn more customers to the bookstore/health product supplier, though it's been hard to tell amid already rising sales.
"We've been thriving with everything that's been going on," said James Hillyard, a manager at the Philly institution. "People are at home now. They're seeking knowledge. They want to find places that have the books that we carry."
Hillyard noted that the latest round of protests is hardly the first time there has been a spike in awareness of Black issues. Black and Nobel had been cultivating its presence in the community as a Black-owned outlet since the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2014.
"This is a continuation," he said. "However, we're seeing a more aggressive response because of how things have been ramped up amid quarantine and the threat of COVID-19. People are collectively jittery and antsy."
Whether books about Black history and racism continue to sell-out or not, Black and Nobel plans to serve those customers regardless.
"I try not to think about it in terms of 'Am I going to make money based on the Blackout?' This is what we do every day. This is a lifestyle for us," he said.