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Harlem's Hue-Man Bookstore to Close at End of July

By Jeff Mays | July 2, 2012 2:01pm
Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe CEO and co-owner Marva Allen said the 10-year-old book retailer would be closing its doors at the end of July 2012 due to a "new reality" in the publishing industry and rising rents.
Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe CEO and co-owner Marva Allen said the 10-year-old book retailer would be closing its doors at the end of July 2012 due to a "new reality" in the publishing industry and rising rents.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Citing a "new reality" in the publishing industry and rising rents, Harlem's Hue-Man Bookstore and Cafe will be closing its doors after 10 years in business at the end of July, said CEO and co-owner Marva Allen.

The retailer was one of the largest independent, black-owned bookstores in the country, stocking mostly titles by black writers that were of interest to the black community.

"We all know that there is a season for everything under the heaven and the season of 'traditional book' selling has come to a close," Allen wrote in a e-newsletter to the Harlem community, calling the move "the only sensible decision we could make."

Allen said the rent at the store in the Harlem USA mall on West 125th street was set to increase to a point where it would not be financially feasible to continue in the space.

"Our business grew 37 percent this year, but the truth of the matter is that it will never grow fast enough to handle the financial obligations of Harlem," Allen told DNAinfo.com New York.

"The industry is changing, times are changing, the neighborhood is changing and our lease is up," she added.

The store hosted dozens of famous authors over the years such as Cornel West and the late Manning Marable. The publishing industry overall was not doing well, Allen said.

"Faced with tremendous social pressures to deliver the next big idea, celebrity books have become the interim hype, yet even that is not a sustainable model for an industry in turmoil," Allen wrote.

Given the reality of the publishing industry and the end of the store's lease, now is the time to "re-imagine the future of books," she said.

Patrons of the store, which is located at 2319 Frederick Douglass Boulevard between 124th and 125th streets, expressed a mix of shock and sadness as they showed up to see the closing signs.

"There is nothing like going into a book store and losing yourself or discovering something you didn't know you wanted," said Lesley Small, 48, a life-long Harlem resident who works with the developmentally disabled.

Small said she considered the store the logical successor to the progressive Liberation Book Store which closed in 2007. Hue-Man was given the store's entire stock of books.

"This was like Liberation 2.0. After that closed, people migrated here," said Small.

Small grabbed a copy of a book titled "Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect" while already holding a copy of "Ethiopian Women of Power."

"This is the kind of stuff you just bump into," Small said excitedly.

Allen said while the rising rent was a factor, the store enjoyed a lease well below market rate as part of the development of Harlem USA. Having a cultural institution in the mall was part of the development deal with community partner Harlem Commonwealth Council.

Allen said the landlord, Grid Properties, was "generous" when the store was experiencing hard times.

"I know people in Harlem will think we are being pushed out by gentrification, but that's not the case," said Allen.

Curtis Archer, president and CEO of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, said it was unfortunate to see Hue-Man close because the store filled a special space in the community.

"When you passed the window there were a lot of the black authors prominently displayed. You wouldn't see that in Barnes and Nobles," said Archer.

But the store was affected by changes in the publishing industry.

"Hue-Man is a casualty of something that's been happening in the publishing world for a number of years. The Internet and technology has made the whole model of brick and mortar bookstores a very expensive proposition," said Archer.

Allen agreed.

"There is no way to reimagine the bookstore of the future in our current space. To try and do so would be a stop-gap and a waste of resources."

Allen said they are not exactly sure what the bookstore of the future will look like but that she envisions the store having a physical space elsewhere in Harlem in a year or two. She plans to travel to Europe and other places to find the model she is looking for.

"The bookstore is a place of intellectual pursuit, a place to meet and talk about ideas," Allen said during the interview. "I believe we should always have a physical space. It serves as a meeting place."

But the bookstore of the future will have to embrace the reality of technology, where people have access to electronic books as well as print publications, she said.

Hue-Man will now turn its focus to helping ethnic writers while continuing to be involved in publishing and offering agency services to writers. The store will also maintain an online presence that Allen hopes will allow her to keep many of the store's eight employees.

July's closing events feature an event with the cast of the Broadway musical FELA!, among other guests.

Since the news of the store's closure began to spread, Allen said she has been overwhelmed with well-wishers and people telling her how much they loved the store.

"Harlem is a unique place. It takes a while for people to embrace you," said Allen. "But when they do, they wrap their arms around you."