Recently I heard some Black leaders complaining about the African-American section of the bookstore. They stated having a separate shelf space for African-American titles is a form of discrimination. Some called for an integration of the African-American section titles with all the other mainstream titles. In this case, I have to disagree with Black leadership. When it comes to the sales of Black books, separate and equal are good business practices for all.
Last year publishers produced over 172,500 new titles. This is down from 185,000 new titles published the previous year. From a customer’s perspective, searching for a single title in a bookstore during a lunch break can be frustrating. Even with the help of an experienced sales clerk, it can be difficult for a customer to find that one title in some of the smaller bookstores let alone the multileveled superstores. Bookstore managers know time is money, and each second a customer can’t find a product on a shelf the clock is ticking on a sale.
So managers of small bookstores and large chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders separated the African-American section from the mainstream literature. This was to help customers find titles faster and get their purchases processed. Managers understood that most customers didn’t have the time to search the shelves. Customers wanted to make their purchases quickly.
So is it racist for retailers to separate books by African-American authors from the rest of the mainstream titles? No. The African-American section is extremely profitable for publishers and bookstores. It moves titles off the shelves and into reader’s hands. Finding a title in the African-American section is a lot easier for a first time customer than searching the entire store by the author’s last name first.
Those who call for the integration of the African-American section of the bookstore don’t understand the retail side of the publishing business. Most bookstores, even the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders operate on a razor thin profit margin. Ninety percent of all new titles published in the calendar year will not sell enough copies to make a profit for the publisher or the bookstore. Retailers welcome any change in the sales floor that allows them to target niche audiences of customers. For them, separate sections for Black literature equals more profits overall.
I’ll give you two examples of the why a separate African-American book section is equal: Here in New York there were two Barnes and Noble stores. One was in the Manhattan Mall. Another was on 34th and Seventh. When both stores had their African-American Fiction and non-fiction titles separated from the “mainstream” titles they had lots of foot traffic and lots of sales. I’d watch as Black women frequently made their purchases from the African-American section. However when management of both stores integrated the African American authors in each store with the other mainstream titles last name first, I noticed foot traffic at the store dropped off dramatically and sales plummeted. Why? It just took too much time for customers to find a title.
In each case of title integration I saw, it was a disaster. First the Barnes and Nobles on 34th and Seventh closed. Then the store in the Manhattan Mall closed. A few years later A Barnes and Noble opened on 38th and Fifth. This store also integrated its African-American titles with the mainstream ones. It closed within two years.
While these bookstores were closing, street vendors all over the city were selling African-American titles exclusively. To the chagrin of brick-and mortar retailers, they had titles by African-American authors on their tables ready for purchase. On top of it they offered discounts in some cases the equal of retailers. Because customers could quickly make their purchases, many readers of African-American literature now do business exclusively with book vendors and not bookstores.
So while integrating Black authors with mainstream titles might be politically correct, it’s just not profitable. Separate shelf space equals access to mainstream bookstores for African American authors and equals more sales of books to readers.