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Black Bookstores Face Increased Demand Amid Protests Against Racism

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Black bookstores are not new. What is new is a flood of first-time customers seeking them out for books to help navigate America's moment of racial reckoning. From member station WGBH in Boston, Saraya Wintersmith reports on how the reading rush has fueled a bittersweet business bump.

SARAYA WINTERSMITH, BYLINE: At Boston's Frugal Bookstore, owner Leonard Egerton is up to his waist in boxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXES SHUFFLING)

WINTERSMITH: He rearranges them to make space for customers in the store's kids corner. He does a quick bit of quality control, slicing open each package and inspecting its contents.

LEONARD EGERTON: Make sure the books are not bent.

WINTERSMITH: The boxes are just one of the daily tasks Egerton and his family are managing at their small community bookstore. There's the phone, the in-store customers, the pending online orders and the additional boxes needed to fulfill them. And that doesn't even include the Egertons' personal struggles.

EGERTON: I'm working 24/7, and it's been hectic, you know? We have to deal with how one of our family members died from the coronavirus, somebody that's really, really close to us. And it's overbearing for us at times, but we have to keep pushing on.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Thank you for calling Frugal Bookstore. How may I help you?

WINTERSMITH: Egerton says the rush began about a month ago, when protests against racism and police brutality went nationwide. The demonstrations came with a wave of new customers seeking books about race and systemic racism and a movement to conscientiously support Black bookstores. But there was a problem.

EGERTON: We started getting emails that people wanted to cancel orders, saying that we were too slow. And we tried to explain the best that we could that, you know, this is new for us.

WINTERSMITH: Across the nation, Black bookstore owners like Egerton are ramping up order volumes to meet demand while still trying to function during a pandemic. Book publishers, who were also taken by surprise, are part of the holdup. Sourcebooks, which publishes Layla Saad's book "Me And White Supremacy," says they're taking the rare step of issuing multiple small print runs as a way to get books out more quickly. The New Press says they had 40,000 copies of Michelle Alexander's 10-year-old book "The New Jim Crow." That's normally a more than ample reserve that disappeared virtually overnight.

ALEA CAPELLO: It's the same thing like what happened with, you know, meat in grocery stores and toilet paper.

WINTERSMITH: Alea Capello is one of the people still waiting for an order she placed at the beginning of June. She lives in Gloucester, Mass., and purchased "How To Be Antiracist" (ph) and "Hood Feminism" as a way to start supporting the state's Black community.

CAPELLO: But I do recognize, you know, this is a pandemic. There is a lot of challenges that come with supporting individuals that are really kind of running their operation. So I'm just having the best patience that I can. When they come, I'll be ready for them.

WINTERSMITH: The slogan at Frugal Bookstore is changing minds one book at a time. Owner Leonard Egerton says it is befitting for the national phenomenon where many are trying to buy books with the intention of becoming better.

EGERTON: But you can't possibly change your mind from the reading of one book or two or three books.

WINTERSMITH: That process, he says, takes time, empathy and building relationships.

For NPR News, I'm Saraya Wintersmith in Boston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.