In Harlem, Sister’s Uptown demonstrates the importance of Black-owned bookstores

In Harlem, Sister’s Uptown demonstrates the importance of Black-owned bookstores

Harlem bookstore owner Janifer P. Wilson is celebrating Sister’s Uptown’s 20th anniversary — but the journey hasn’t been an easy one, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

After the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmad Arbery, and countless other Black lives lost sparked a new wave of the Black Lives Matter movement in June, online activists called out anti-racist resources and boosted Black-owned businesses. Set against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, this turn of events put Black-owned bookstores at the epicenter of the social movement.

“I’m getting emails from white people in other parts of the country saying, ‘I want to help, but I need help, so is there a book list that I can teach my younger children about the history of African Americans?’” Janifer P. Wilson, owner of the bookstore Sister’s Uptown in Harlem, told ALL ARTS in June.

Wilson (right) and her daughter, Kori (left), courtesy Sister’s Uptown

Sister’s Uptown is celebrating its 20th year in business, but the journey hasn’t been particularly easy. Wilson was raised in Georgia during the Jim Crow era and after being deemed a “rebel,” she moved to Harlem at a young age to live with her father. Years later, she started her bookstore when she realized the mostly residential and historically Black neighborhood of Sugar Hill didn’t have one.

“In the area where I was living, I was like, ‘Hmm, I don’t see any bookstores uptown,’” Wilson said. She recalled bookstores further down in Harlem, like Liberation Bookstore and Black Books Plus (the latter of which has since closed). “I would go around to those bookstores and sit at the feet of the people who owned them and operated them, just to find out what the book business was really all about.”

Around the time Sister’s Uptown opened, Wilson said she was confronted with two problems: the shifting neighborhood as “professionals” fled, citing the city’s drug epidemic, and the lack of foot traffic in a non-commercial area. But she stayed, hoping her bookstore would help the community in the long run.

“Indie bookstores are more than retail stores,” said American Book Association (ABA) CEO Allison Hill, pointing to the ways in which independent bookstores help local economies and neighborhoods. She also shared a quote from W. Paul Coates, founder and director of Black Classic Press: “Black bookstores are not just in the mission to sell books. Their mission is to make sure that the information they are carrying expands their community and expands the minds of the people in the community.”

Embodying the spirit described by Coates, Wilson aims “to embrace and introduce and present works by African American authors” and has spent years conceiving more than just a bookstore. Sister’s Uptown expanded to accommodate a “cultural center” in 2007 in an effort to get grant money for the artists who were invited into the space for readings and book signings. Wilson’s daughter and only employee, Kori, had worked at Starbucks previously, so they created a space for a cafe as well. And after meeting people importing African goods, the two-person team added in a gift gallery.

All the while, Wilson said she was working as a healthcare professional to pay the bills. She still does not receive a salary from Sister’s Uptown, her daughter works as an independent contractor, and she’s never borrowed money, fearful she’d be unable to pay back a loan. The bookstore, cafe and gallery were mostly self-sustaining.

Then the pandemic hit. Sister’s Uptown closed for three months as part of the mandated lockdown.

Courtesy Sister’s Uptown 

“We didn’t qualify for any loans,” Wilson said, explaining that since she technically does not have any employees, her and Kori were unable to receive Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funding. They survived off modest grants, including one for local businesses from New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Even if Wilson had been able to apply for the loan, the program she pointed to might not have helped. In March 2020, as part of the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, the Small Business Administration (SBA) was meant to prioritize giving loans to small businesses owned by BIPOC to ensure their employees could continue receiving paychecks for up to eight weeks under PPP. But as an internal investigation from the administration’s inspector general showed, that did not happen.

“BIPOC-owned independent bookstores have more obstacles to face than white-owned independent bookstores,” Hill said, illustrating the challenges racism brings on for BIPOC business owners. “Studies show that people of color are being paid less than their colleagues are paid for similar work, that the median income and resulting savings for people of color is less, and, subsequently, people of color are less likely to inherit money.”

A 2016 Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research study found that only 1% of Black business owners had a bank loan approved within their first year of business compared with 7% of white owners, she said. And Brookings Institution cites a 2018 Small Business Credit survey, which found that large banks approve 60% of loan requests by white small business owners, 50% by Latinx small business owners and only 29% by Black small business owners.

“It’s not a money-making entity,” Wilson said. “This is a love of literacy; I love what I do.”

As lockdowns begin again, the future remains unclear for Sister’s Uptown. The store has limited hours and an online shop, as well as a link where those who want to help can donate. But back in June, Wilson was considering a second wave of the pandemic and what that would look like for her community-building space.

“We just don’t know in terms of, how do you prepare?” she wondered. “You know, because the bills that we had still exist and [there are] bills that you’re gonna incur to even move forward … And when you’re closed and folks move on, you’ve almost got to reestablish yourself.”

Hill remains optimistic about the future of independent bookstores, believing that a second wave of government relief will come for small businesses in which BIPOC businesses will actually get priority this time around.

“I think we’ll [also] continue to see support from nonprofits and the private sector,” she said. “During COVID, there was support for BIPOC small business owners from the Coalition to Back Black Businesses, Your Friends in New York Business Relief Fund, Hello Alice Business For All Emergency Grants, and the Verizon Small Business Recovery Fund, to name a few.”

Wilson is optimistic, too, but for a different reason.

“More people are coming in, and you know what they’re reading? ‘White Fragility’ and ‘How to be an Anti-Racist’ — all those books are being read by adults who didn’t have a clue,” Wilson said. “So I believe that the healing will be universal, and it’s going to be as a result of the path that our ancestors laid for us.”

To support Sister’s Uptown, visit the bookstore’s website. To learn more about the American Book Association, visit the nonprofit’s website.

Top Image: Courtesy of Sophia McGee