Alumna Char Adams Lands Deal to Write Book on Black-Owned Bookstores

January 30, 2023

"Black-Owned: The Revolutionary Life of the Black Bookstore" will be the first full-length book on the history of Black-owned bookstores.

Char Adams
Journalist Char Adams (M.A. ’20) at The Key Bookstore in Hartford, Connecticut (Photo courtesy of Char Adams)

Several years ago, after researching and reporting on what was then a passion project, Char Adams (M.A. ’20, Women’s and Gender Studies) wrote an article about the history of Black-owned bookstores and the key role they’ve played in Black activism and culture.

Her article led to a contact from a literary agent, and last fall she announced that Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House founded by comedian, author, and actor Phoebe Robinson, would publish her book, titled Black-Owned: The Revolutionary Life of the Black Bookstore. It will be the first full-length book on Black-owned bookstores, and will focus both on their history and current Black-owned bookstores across the U.S. Adams, who is also a journalist for NBCBLK and was previously a digital editor at the Graduate Center, recently talked about her project in an interview from her home in Dallas.

The Graduate Center: How did you first become interested in writing a book about Black-owned bookstores?

Adams: I’ve always loved books; I’ve always loved to read. And in 2018 I was reading an article in The Atlantic by Joshua Clark Davis about how the FBI surveilled Black bookstores back in the ’60s. I was just so fascinated by it, and I kept thinking that this was something that happened to real people. I found myself really interested in the stories of the bookstore owners who went through this.

I was very passionate about the storytelling, and so I chose to track down a few of those bookstore owners. I learned so much from them, and I was really fascinated by the fact that this history of Black-owned bookstores wasn’t largely known. Based on those interviews I had done, I published an article in an online publication called MIC about the political life of Black-owned bookstores. I talked about the very first Black-owned bookstore, which opened in the 1830s, and I talked about Black bookstores from then to about 2020.

That was the first thing I wrote on Black-owned bookstores, and by then, I had talked to so many fascinating people and had learned so much that I just didn’t want to let the topic go. And so since about 2019 I’ve been traveling the country and talking to different Black booksellers and talking to people who own Black bookstores. I found so many different threads that I wanted to add.

GC: How have you found the process of turning an article into a book? Do you have any tips for scholars who’d like to make that leap?

Adams: It’s really exciting to turn an article into a book for a few reasons. One, since I’ve done a lot of reporting on the topic and developed a lot of relationships in Black bookselling, I feel I’ve laid the groundwork for the book already. So it’s a lot less intimidating than if I were starting from scratch!

As far as tips, I’d say building relationships is key. I began studying/writing about Black bookselling in 2019 and I got my book deal in 2022, so that’s three years of getting to know booksellers, activists, researchers, etc. And having already developed those relationships, I’m going into the book feeling a sense of security that I can cover the topic well.

Also, social media is an invaluable source for finding agents and whether they’re open to inquiries. On Twitter, for example, many will clarify in their bio whether they’re receiving pitches/inquiries at the time.

GC: You grew up in Philadelphia and later lived in New York. What are your favorite bookstores there and in other cities?

Adams: In Philadelphia, there are two that I really like. There’s Hakim’s Book Store, the oldest Black-owned bookstore in Philadelphia. It opened in the early ’60s And I believe it is one of the two oldest Black bookstores in the country. In Philadelphia there’s also Harriet’s Bookshop — it’s fairly new, and has such a wide variety of books by Black authors and a really cool event space.

Here in Dallas, there’s a bookstore called Blacklit, and what’s really cool about them is they actually started as a subscription service, and then they chose to open up their shop. And in the Bronx, there’s a really cool store called The Lit. Bar. They started as a pop-up bookshop that was across the city, but once the last Barnes & Noble in the Bronx closed, the owner chose to open a brick-and-mortar store. That shop is both a bookstore and a bar.

GC: How are you balancing your work as a NBCBLK journalist with the book writing? Is it challenging, in terms of time management, or do you find that the two types of work complement each other?

Adams: To be honest, it’s very challenging to balance work as a full-time journalist and writing a book. I usually work during the day and on my book at night, so I don’t always feel I have the time I need. Thankfully, NBC offers book leave so I’ll be able to take a few months off from work to focus on my book. I’m so blessed in that because I know not every company (no matter the field) has book leave.

GC: You came to the Graduate Center to explore your interests in race and women’s issues. Did that overlap with the themes you’re covering in your book?

Adams: One thing that I loved about the Women’s and Gender Studies program is that we covered a lot of work by Black feminists and writers, and I noticed was that some of the Black feminists were very involved in Black presses and Black-owned stores. For example, both Barbara Smith and Audre Lorde were founders of Kitchen Table Press, and a lot of others whose work we studied in the program were people who loved books and had special relationships with Black presses, Black stores.

One thing that I quickly learned about Black-owned bookstores is that they have always largely been mission-driven. What I found is that a lot of Black-owned bookstores, throughout U.S. history, were started by started by activists, like feminists with anti-capitalist principles. The principles and practices that we studied in the master’s program are the same principles that really have defined Black-owned bookstores.

Learn More About the M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies

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