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Speaking Volumes

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Walter Mosley swings through Southern California this month on a national tour promoting his new novel, “Gone Fishin,’ ” his publisher has arranged for him to travel 75 miles east of Los Angeles to read at a tiny bookstore in San Bernardino called the Phenix Information Center.

Mosley isn’t the only well-known African American writer to make the pilgrimage to Phenix, an independently owned shop crammed into just 1,500 square feet in the city’s downtown historic district. Since 1994, Phenix has also hosted such luminaries as Johnnie Cochran, Christopher Darden, George Foreman and Bebe Moore Campbell, to name just a few.

Phenix was one of two black-owned bookstores in the nation to lure Colin Powell to a book signing in 1995, back when the retired general was contemplating a run for president. The event, which just about shut down the city for the day, was held at a civic auditorium to accommodate the overflow crowd of 2,500.

At a time when many independent bookstores have foundered in the face of competition from discount chains, Phenix has tripled in size and etched itself into the national book publishing map in just a few short years.

“They’ve become one of the top 10 African American bookstores in the nation, and they’ve done it at a speed which I’ve never seen before,” says Manie Barron, an African American trade book specialist in sales and marketing with Random House Publishing in New York.

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“Basically, if we have an author coming through California, and Phenix wants them, they’re No. 1 on my list.”

But even more than a book world presence, Phenix--owned and run by a married couple, Joann and Faron Roberts--serves as a cultural hub for African Americans in the Inland Empire. In addition to author readings, the store hosts a weekly writers group, organizes workshops on such subjects as getting out of debt or tracing your roots, and sells tickets to black plays and musical events.

Phenix has a community bulletin board where people can advertise events and services. It has a speakers bureau. And it has given over its display window to community organizations that promote awareness about issues such as sickle cell anemia, black infant health and AIDS. More than 70 women turned out recently for a breast cancer awareness workshop co-sponsored by local hospitals and county agencies.

“They have a real creative vision of what they want their bookstore to accomplish, and they’re very positive role models in the community,” says Jeannette Roberts (no relation to the store’s owners) of San Bernardino, a die-hard customer and fan who has missed only one book signing in four years.

With its terra cotta painted walls, thick blue carpet, cool jazz playing softly in the background and inviting displays, Phenix is a sanctuary where customers can sit and thumb through a book or have a quiet conversation.

Customers know that Joann is a soft touch who will stay open 30 minutes past closing if they need to search for a perfect gift. She has even received calls at home on Sunday from customers who have relatives in town and plead with her to open up so they can show off their local bookstore. She always agrees.

“We can’t compete with the Crown Books on a price-wise basis, but people can come in here and chat with someone who can really relate to what’s going on in the community or tell them where to find the NAACP office or the African-American Attorneys Assn.,” Joann says.

One recent day, customer Todd King, 29, provided a perfect illustration. King drove 20 minutes from Riverside just to buy a $1.38 Afrocentric card at Phenix.

“I want to go to an African American bookstore,” King explained. “I want to support African American businesses.”

Another customer wanted to know when Phenix was getting fliers for the Bob Marley Reggae Festival. A third dropped in, inquiring about a children’s book reading.

Phenix is now recognized throughout the region as a model business. In 1995, the Robertses were voted entrepreneurs of the year by the Inland Empire African American Chamber of Commerce.

All in all, it’s a family affair. The Robertses’ sons, Travis, 20, and Faron Jr., 18, built the tall pine bookshelves that line the walls. Their 15-year-old daughter, Pcyeta, helps out during school holidays.

In addition to books, the store also sells books and speeches on tape, musical CDs, Kwanzaa items, children’s games, black dolls, African American themed cards, Afrocentric gift wrap and customized wedding invitations. The store has a large selection of books for children and young adults and a growing selection of used books. Customers can also find up to 25 African American newspapers and magazines.

An antique cabinet displays rare books from the Robertses’ private collection, including first editions of Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Alex Haley’s “Roots” and the autobiography of Myrlie Evers, wife of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, called “For Us the Living.”

“I’m hoping I can meet her and get it signed one day,” Joann says wistfully.

It just might happen. When it comes to literary appearances, Phenix is egalitarian, hosting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar one night and a self-published Inland Empire poet the next.

“We do the local boy signings; we don’t turn anyone away,” Joann says.

But a Phenix event is a far cry from the staid author receptions that characterize Barnes & Noble. Without exception, they are dramatically staged events, with a community turnout that evokes the best of small-town America and draws people of all colors from as far as Los Angeles, San Diego and Palm Springs.

“What this woman does,” says an awed Barron, “borders on pageantry.”

When former world heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman came to Phenix to autograph his new cookbook last July, the Robertses organized a barbecue with a jazz band on the town square that drew 675 people.

Pulling up in his limousine, Foreman took one look at the crowd and complained nervously about having to compete with some kind of festival. It wasn’t until the limousine spun around the square once that Foreman realized the crowd was assembled in his honor. The champ, who had been scheduled to sign books from 6 to 8 p.m., enjoyed himself so much he didn’t leave until 11.

*

The Robertses met more than 20 years ago at a Bible study group in Pomona. They settled in Rialto and had three children. Joann worked as an accountant. Faron had a job as a computer technician and was an avid reader who dreamed of opening a small bookstore.

In 1992, they decided to take the plunge. Faron sat down and wrote a mission statement:

“We are a community-sensitive enterprise that is here to serve our African American community and to keep them informed of self-esteeming, self promoting, self empowerment concepts and information in the form of knowledge through literature and to provide all non-African Americans in the Inland Empire an awareness of the contributions of African Americans through literature.”

Central Los Angeles was rebuilding from riots at the time, and Faron liked the image of the phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from the ashes into a new life. He chose that as the bookstore’s symbolic name, putting a new spin on the standard spelling.

The couple also gave careful thought to their logo and came up with the image of a black man sitting on a stack of books. Using $7,000 in savings, they bought eight boxes of books and rented a 400-square-foot storefront near their home.

Each time they sold a few books, they used the profits to buy more, always focusing on African American writers but including other popular authors, such as R.L. Stine for children and Anne Rice and Michael Crichton for the grown-ups.

In 1994, they were talked into relocating into a 1,000-square-foot facility in downtown San Bernardino. Colin Strange, who runs the city’s Main Street downtown business development district, was looking for motivated entrepreneurs to revive the city’s historic district and has not been disappointed.

“They’ve brought a tremendous amount of prestige to the area that is very encouraging,” Strange says.

Three months ago, Phenix expanded again, moving to its current building on E Street with high tin ceilings and ornate wall moldings.

The city and Phenix have proved an amiable partnership. The mayor often comes to signings or sends a representative. Schools send contingents of children. Local bands play, and neighborhood restaurants cater in Cajun food.

City merchants are delighted, since the high-profile signings bring hundreds of people to downtown San Bernardino, where they end up spending money at shops and restaurants.

As the events have grown in size, the Robertses have had to organize signings at larger locations. More than 60 volunteers donate services and time to help Phenix pull it off.

Why?

Alton Garrett, an events planner with his own company who coordinates the book signings for Phenix and calls Joann “boss lady,” says it’s because he wants to give something back to a bookstore that has brought so much culture and pride to African Americans in the Inland Empire.

“It’s far more than a bookstore, it’s a family thing. And we listen to her and volunteer our time to help her out. It makes us feel like we’re accomplishing things that are good for the community.”

For instance, Phenix always donates a percentage of its author-signing revenues to local organizations such as black sororities or youth groups. The Powell speech netted $2,000 for the San Bernardino Literacy Program, run out of the city library.

Authors love the Robertses because they go to great pains to make them comfortable, serving their favorite beverage, keeping the crowds orderly and making them feel welcome. Wanda McGlover, who owns the clothing store Wanda’s Wondrous Works across the street from Phenix, often makes and presents one-of-a-kind garments to her favorite authors. Fans bring handmade gifts.

“To Future Millionaires,” wrote an impressed Darden on the signed copy he gave them after his visit. For Cochran’s signing at the Sturges Auditorium, the Robertses and their team of volunteers all dressed in purple and brought in a choir to serenade the fiery defense attorney. Cochran was so touched he sent flowers the next day.

Felix H. Liddell, who with his wife, Paula L. Woods, has written a handful of books, says Phenix is a must-stop on his tours.

“Our books sell well at her signings, but her aftermarket is really big too. With the large migration of minorities to the Inland Empire, there needs to be a source for obtaining black literature, and that’s what Joann has been able to pull off.”

Indeed, the black population in the Inland Empire grew 179% between 1980 and 1990, making it the fastest-growing black suburban area in the country, according to American Demographics magazine.

That has meant a large number of sophisticated new residents starved for the offerings of a big city-style bookstore and a growing marketplace for the Robertses to sell their books. Barron, of Random House, says sales at tiny Phenix are comparable to sales at L.A. bookstores.

These days, when Angelenos miss authors at EsoWon, a black bookstore in Inglewood, they can drive to San Bernardino to catch them.

*

But it wasn’t always this easy. Joann remembers spending hours on the phone, trying to drum up interest among publishers to send their authors to the Inland Empire.

“At first, they weren’t interested in coming out here; they didn’t think it was an area that would draw a big reading crowd. We worked real hard at disproving that,” she says.

The event that really put Phenix on the map was hosting Powell. Joann had to write up a proposal and send it to Random House.

Realizing there was no way to provide adequate room and security at the store, Joann worked with the mayor’s office and the Economic Development Department to use the California Theater.

Police were mobilized. A jazz group agreed to perform. A local furniture store loaned an ornate desk for Powell to sit at; a music store loaned a baby grand piano. Joann lined up five local poets to read specially commissioned works. A color guard from nearby March Air Force Base was enlisted.

Impressed, Random House gave Phenix the green light.

“As a book rep, I’m constantly hearing from bookstores that want authors,” Barron says. “But when she started telling me about the people she was bringing in and how the city of San Bernardino was involved, it took on a whole different perspective. At one point, my eyebrow wanted to go up as I was listening to her, but something inside of me said ‘believe it.’ There’s something about her sincerity. Joann transcends. She makes you a believer.”

Today, all the publishers court her. But Joann gives credit to Random House, which she says was the first to believe enough in Phenix to send Powell her way.

To prepare for the general’s visit, her team of 60 volunteers met each week for two months, lining up sponsors, coordinating crowd control with police and the U.S. Secret Service, and even going through dry runs of the entire event.

People started lining up for the 10 a.m. event at 3 in the morning. Many were turned away at the door.

Powell was so touched that even though he wasn’t scheduled to speak, he talked for 15 minutes, and then signed books. The crowd included people of every color, and that was just fine with Joann.

“I don’t want anyone to feel this is just a bookstore for black people,” she mused one recent afternoon between customers. “These are all black authors, but they write poetry, memoirs, history, things that are relevant to all people.”


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