Derrick and Ramunda Young got their start in the book business in Washington, D.C. in the late 1990s, just a few years after they were married. Ramunda worked at the Howard University bookstore. “When you think of college bookstores, you think of textbooks only,” she says. ” It was actually an independent bookstore and the section I managed was all Black books.”
In the decades since, independent booksellers have seen major downward shifts in their industry–prompted by everything from the rise of ebooks to stiff competition from big box book retailers to a recession that hit the retail industry hard. But in recent years, independent booksellers have seen somewhat of a comeback, fueled in part by the political resistance movement.
It may be that fuel which will help propel the newest generation of Black bookstores. The Youngs say there are between 54 and 56 Black-owned bookstores left in the country, but theirs wasn’t the only one to open in the past few months. The same weekend the Youngs opened Mahogany Books, academic Marc Lamont Hill opened up Uncle Bobbie’s bookstore in Philadelphia.
For the past ten years, the couple has been running an online bookstore which became the precursor for their brick-and-mortar store in the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast D.C. The store sells books “for, by or about people of the African diaspora,” says Ramunda. Approximately 95% of the few thousand books in their storefront, located within the Anacostia Art Center, are by Black authors, says Derrick. In one section of the store, they are also hosting a small pop-up by Duende District, a D.C.-based mobile bookstore with books by authors of color.
Despite a rapidly changing city and a challenging political climate, the couple was able to achieve their long-held dream of opening a storefront this past November. They spent much of the past decade as an online retailer building capital, forming relationships in the industry and searching D.C. for an affordable location for their store, which they finally found at the Anacostia Arts Center.
Mahogany Books is small (just 500-square-feet) and welcoming. As you walk in, you’re greeted by their bright logo, inspired by a photo of their daughter reading, with her two afropuffs peeking out from behind the book. A wall of photos of Black intellectuals and authors like Zora Neale Hurston and Frederick Douglass, as well as pictures the Youngs’ family members cover the front of the store. “It was important to have them in this space, looking over us and giving their blessing,” says Ramunda of the display.
The Anacostia Arts Center has been open since 2013 and hosts a number of other Black-owned businesses in the space—including a physical therapist and a vintage clothing store. Derrick says their goal had been to open a physical bookstore since they began Mahogany, but the time had come this past year when the Arts Center approached the couple.
“When this opportunity came, in a community where my husband’s grandmother lived, the time was right for us,” says Ramunda.
“I have scars and bruises from just being a crazy little kid playing dodgeball in the street,” recounts Derrick of his childhood in the neighborhood. “This was family central. When I drive down the street, I try to point out to my daughter—’oh I did this or that over there.’” The Youngs’ daughter, Mahogany, is almost thirteen and the namesake for their business. She also sells her own crafts in the store, including scarves that she arm knits.
When the Youngs’ store opened in late 2017, local media outlets highlighted the fact that it was the first bookstore to open east of the river in 20 years. East of the Anacostia river, in the Southeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., the Anacostia neighborhood has been predominantly Black since the mid 1900s when Whites left the area for the suburbs. Communities in Southeast D.C. now have a poverty rate that is three times higher than the rest of the city. Even as gentrification has changed the face of “Chocolate City” in recent years, the area surrounding the bookstore has remained predominantly Black, but recent development and interest in the area has people concerned that it too will shift.
“Even though the demographics are changing, we still are going to have [books by and about people of the African diaspora],” says Ramunda.
“[There is an] audience looking for these books, whether they live down the street from us or they live in Laurel, Maryland or Baltimore,” Derrick adds.”I don’t care about the changing demographic because this specific type of bookstore is needed. As the demographics change or flux, our business strategies will have to adapt to that.”
The political climate in which they are opening the store is not lost on the Youngs. The Trump Administration is just a few miles away, and increased polarization around race has defined this past year. “It’s made me much more focused on the necessity for a store and a place like this,” says Derrick. “A mother came in here and brought her son specifically to show him that a Black man owns this bookstore. That’s the importance of being here in this political environment, doing this kind of work.”
Just last week (February 19), The Atlantic published, “The FBI’s War on Black Bookstores,” about the surveillance of Black-owned bookstores during the ’60s and ’70s during COINTELPRO after FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memo about the “increase in the establishment of extremist Black bookstores.” Bookstores in D.C. were particularly targeted because of their proximity to the agency.
When it comes to concerns about the FBI and his business, Derrick says he has considered it. “Before anything, I’m a husband and a father. My actions and decisions, they impact my family and they come first.” Their store uses #BlackBooksMatter to promote their inventory and programs, and Derrick recognizes the potential connection to the FBI investigation of “Black Identity Extremists.” But after considering the risks, he says, “we just redoubled. We’re not going to be cowered by people who are trying to scare us out of appreciating who we are. We’re not doing anything illegal. We’re selling books and telling people, invest in yourselves, invest in your community.”
Ramunda says the reception from the community has been beyond positive. “It’s been overwhelming! The biggest barometer for success are the people that come in who live down the street and around the corner.”
Derrick agrees, saying, ”This space is all about bringing people together.”