Announcing our latest Bookstore Partner: Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti, Michigan!

The Black Stone storefront with founders Carlos Franklin and Kip Johnson

As regular readers of Book Post will know, we are strong advocates for independent bookselling, and it’s not just because we love going to bookstores (though we do). The more we consider the landscape the more visible it becomes: our independent booksellers and small- to medium-sized publishers, and other local reading communities like book clubs and public libraries, are vital to keeping diversity of thought and inquiry going in this country for those who are no longer in school. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown a light on this reality even as it has mortally threatened it. Independent bookselling showed surprising resilience in the face of digitization and online retail precisely because it gathered people together in real-life situations, honored the local and personal interests of readers, and recognized that reading is profoundly rooted in shared culture. The future vitality of this essential resource depends on how intentionally we, as readers, support those businesses that keep these connections alive.

So when I began looking for our next bookstore partner, to link to and feature in Book Post, I went first to a community hard-hit by the coronavirus, in the hopes that a few online orders from Book Post readers could help buoy the bottom line of an outfit wrestling with the worst of the quarantine closures. (Although bookstores are reporting a surge in online business, it is nowhere near making up for their lost in-person sales.) Wandering down an e-street in Ypsilanti, Michigan, I came across Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center.

Carlos Franklin and Kip Johnson, both Ypsilanti natives, founded Black Stone in 2013. The Ann Arbor News reported it was the only bookstore in the area devoted to African-American books and culture. “We want to create a community,” Carlos told the News. “You can go in there and meet people with powerful minds." Carlos had been selling books in barber shops and beauty salons and gas stations around Ypsilanti.  He came from a humble background, he told me; he was raised by his great-grandparents, who “loved books, loved knowledge.” Then a third-grade teacher began giving him books, and he found reading them “like no other feeling in the world. I wanted to share that feeling.”

Kip Johnson, after being laid off his auto-industry job, began selling books alongside incense and soap on the sidewalks of Ypsilanti and Detroit. People kept asking for more books, Kip said, and borrowing them without giving them back. No one else around was selling books (read our Notebook last year about “book deserts”). One day he bought a carton of books and when it was gone in a flash he said, I could do this. He went looking at Ypsilanti’s empty storefronts and discovered landlords were surprisingly receptive to the prospect of a bookstore. Needing a partner to help fund renovations (and teach him how to operate a cash register), he found Carlos, who had more business experience, and they’ve been running Black Stone together ever since. They’re a bit of a mutual admiration society. “He was rooting me on,” Kip has said, and Carlos: “I’d say he’s like a brother—we don’t agree on everything but we’re still good, we’re scorpios, it comes together like a marriage.” Black Stone also sells incense and jewelry and African-inspired art and clothing. “You can’t survive on books alone,” says Kip, but it’s clear that the ambiance is part of the experience they are offering customers: “We want to create a good spirit where people come because they like the product. The world is round and it’ll go back to books," Carlos told the Ann Arbor News. He told a local newsletter, “We have a bunch of barbershops and car washes here, but I wanted to do something different to build the community up.” They even created a “think tank” in the back of the store where kids could do homework and read, and they could also host readings and parties and signings.

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Michigan today has the fourth most coronavirus cases in the country (after New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and California); the third most deaths; and the fifth most deaths per capita. As of April 7, African-Americans, though they make up 14 percent of Michigan’s population, accounted for a third of its coronavirus cases and 40 percent of its deaths. Ypsilante is home to almost half of the coronavirus cases in Washtenaw County, though only a twentieth of its population. Carlos and Kip both know people who are suffering.

African-American businesses are also more threatened by the economic insecurity brought on by the pandemic. A 2011 survey found that a majority of businesses in Ypsilanti’s “southside,” the neighborhood just south and west of Black Stone, which has an 80 percent African-American population and a higher concentration of poverty than the county as a whole (more than half, in its poorest district), were even then under ten years old. (Says Carlos: “A lot of businesses here close: the goal is to stay open. We’re tipping pennies out of our pocket every day.”) Business owners told the survey that what would help them most would be more job opportunities in the area, which had drained half of its population since peaking in 1970 and losing a Ford plant and a GM plant that had once been the World-War-II-era Willow Run bomber factory. The neighborhood had no grocery store of its own; among the amenities those surveyed most requested were activities for children and teens and African-American cultural programs.  

Black Stone, founded in 2013 and energetically filling both of these needs, is too small to be eligible for the federal stimulus legislation’s Paycheck Protection Program. They don’t have employees and have never taken out a loan (a significant obstacle for many businesses). African-American book professionals were worried enough about the situation to gather for a conference call on March 20 to address the pandemic’s threat to the recent and tentative uptick in African-American-owned book businesses.

But Carlos and Kip do not like to dwell on the challenges. Carlos says you’re not going to be successful unless you try. As manager of the digital side of the business, he scrambled to get online ordering set up the week the Michigan governor declared a state of emergency and the store had to close. Like many independent booksellers he created a GoFundMe page and immediately began to find ways to reach his customers virtually. (“We love what we do here,” he told them. “We miss our customers, and we miss each other. Our goal is to weather this setback, and stay in business, and reopen our doors to our lovely customers & community very soon.”) Carlos noted that the celebrated Literati Bookstore down the road in Ann Arbor managed to raise $100,000 in two days. Black Stone patrons are less likely to have that kind of money at their disposal. But the local Black Men Read Program, pairing readers with Washtenaw County schoolchildren, with which Black Stone has partnered, recently joined with Black Stone to distribute seventy-five bags of books and activities to families through Ypsilanti Community Schools with support from the United Way and other donors.

In addition to the University of Michigan off in Ann Arbor, Black Stone has Eastern Michigan University right across the street, once the first normal school in the western states, bringing a stream of professors and students through their doors.  But they also serve plenty of neighbors, busy people with a lot on their minds, who might not have seen the point of a bookstore before they had one. “We have to make it happen,” says Carlos.

Kip too accentuates the positive.  New things are always rising up, he says. People don’t like change, but the cycles of life and death, he reassures me, are part of the earth healing itself. We just have not yet seen its new fruit.

Update!
Join us for a mini Ypsi e-festival on Instagram live on the weekend of May 9-10! With Book Post authors Emily Bernard, Calvin Baker, Andre Perry, and Allen Callahan! Full schedule here.

Please support Black Stone Bookstore by ordering from them during the term of our partnership and perhaps give them a lift on GoFundMe—or find a comparable store near you. (The African American Literature Book Club has a list of African-American-owned bookstores by state.) We’ll offer a free one-year subscription to customers who spend more than $50 at Black Stone during our partnership; just send your receipt to info@bookpostusa.com.)

We’re working to host a series of virtual events introducing Book Post’s African-American writers to Black Stone’s community and learning more about the experience of creating a bookstore for a mixed and various clientele like Ypsilanti’s. Stay tuned for updates.

Book Post is a by-subscription book review service, bringing short and well-made book reviews by distinguished and engaging writers direct to your in-box. Subscribe to our book reviews and support our writers and our effort to grow a common reading culture across a fractured media landscape. Among our reviews: Mona Simpson on Lewis HydeEmily Bernard on Imani Perry, John Guare on Elaine Stritch, Joy Williams on Merrill Gilfallen, Jeff Madrick on American Jobs.