Harlem will soon get major bookstore

On Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem, next door to a Disney shopping outlet, a bookstore will soon be born.

Not just any bookstore, but a Black bookstore. Not just any Black bookstore, but one owned by one of the most respected Black booksellers in the country. And not just any location, but Harlem, the historic heart of African-American culture.

The ``Hue-Man Bookstore'' is scheduled to open by early fall. The space, unused right now, is about 4,000 square feet, among the largest of any Black-owned stores.

``I had a vision for a large African-American book store in a city with a large Black population,'' says owner Clara Villarosa, who recently agreed to a 10-year lease and who ran a prominent bookstore in Denver for 15 years before moving to Harlem last year.

What makes this store especially notable is that Harlem, home to the great Black arts movement of the 1920s and 1930s and countless reading groups today, has had surprisingly few booksellers.

One long-closed store was owned by filmmaker Oscar Michaeux, best known for the silent classic ``Body and Soul.'' Another store, Liberation Books, thrived during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but now is open only for limited hours.

Otherwise, Harlem residents must seek out books by other means: the public library, street vendors, a small section in a general store. No major chain has an outlet here. No store in recent memory has been a member of the American Booksellers Association.

``The problem for a long time was money. During the Harlem Renaissance, there was a lot of talk when a new book by Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston would come out, but not a lot of sales,'' says writer David Levering Lewis, whose books include ``The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader'' and two Pulitzer Prize-winning volumes on W.E.B. Du Bois.

But in the past decade, a substantial Black market has emerged in Harlem and elsewhere. The success of Terry McMillan's novel, ``Waiting to Exhale,'' confirmed that sales to Blacks alone could make a best seller. Just in the past year, several major publishers have set up imprints designed for Black readers.

``Harlem is truly an underserved area in terms of bookstores,'' said Manie Baron, a Harlem native and publisher of Amistad Press, a Black imprint of HarperCollins.

Villarosa's store will be part of Harlem U.S.A., a federally designated ``empowerment zone'' that grants tax breaks and exemptions from government regulations. Neighboring stores include Disney, Modell's and Duane Reade. Two and one-half blocks away is the office of former President Clinton.

``I know he likes bookstores so I expect him to be a customer,'' Villarosa says.

The opening of Hue-Man eases two concerns of community leaders. One was getting a locally owned retailer to participate in Harlem U.S.A. The other was finally persuading a bookseller, any bookseller, to set up shop in Harlem. Officials had tried since 1992 and were turned down by Barnes & Noble among other stores.

``The chain bookstores have stereotypical ideas. They don't think there's as large a market as there is,'' says Drew Greenwald, president of Grid Properties, a private company that helped develop Harlem U.S.A.

Villarosa is a major presence among booksellers, especially Black booksellers. She is the first Black woman to serve on the ABA's board of directors and she founded a Black booksellers organization within the ABA. In Denver, her support of Black writers led to friendships with McMillan, Maya Angelou and E. Lynn Harris, among others.

``She took some of my books into her store when I was still selling them from the back of my car. I've never forgotten her for that,'' says Harris, author of such best-selling novels as ``Abide With Me'' and ``Just as I Am.''

If the new store succeeds, it will likely become an essential stop on book tours and a community center in Harlem, just as Villarosa's store was in Denver. Villarosa is already planning the guest list for her launch party.

``It's going to be a blowout! Authors are saying, `Tell me when to come.' I called Maya Angelou. I called Terry (McMillan) and said, `Terry, you know you're going to come.' E. Lynn Harris is going to come.''

``She says I'm coming?'' Harris said with a laugh, ``Well, if she said that, then, yeah, I guess I'll be there.''

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