Another piece of the fabric woven into Harlem will be gone in less than a month.
This past weekend, Hue-Man Bookstore CEO and co-owner Marva Allen announced that the globally known establishment is closing its physical location on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 125th Street and transitioning into a strictly online entity. The bookstore is set to close on July 31.
Over the course of the day, the AmNews witnessed several Harlem residents walk by the store and look with surprise at the “Store Closing Up to 40 Percent Off” and “Time for Change, Everything Goes Inventory Sale” signs.
“What a shame,” uttered one patron as she walked by with two children. The news was just as shocking to patrons inside the establishment as well.
“I’m still stunned,” said Andrew Romeo, who learned of the store’s fate when asked by the AmNews. “I hope they do well with their online store. I hope they advertise it to the community so that rather than going to Amazon, I can go to them. But in terms of a place where people can talk and gather, I don’t know what’s gonna happen to that.”
The bookstore is 10 years old, but Allen said she has solid reasons for making her decision, including that the lease is up, the experience of bookstores is changing and she wants to create a new dynamic for shoppers.
Said Allen, “We need to go away for a minute and reimagine what a new bookstore experience would be like.” Allen hopes to reopen Hue-Man in a few years with a model that is more futuristic.
An open letter on Hue-Man’s website explained why this is happening in the first place.
“Faced with tremendous social pressure to deliver the next big idea, celebrity books have become the interim hype, yet even that is not a sustainable model for an industry in turmoil,” read the letter. “As stopgap measures run out, the industry will be forced to reconcile the future place of ‘real books’ in their business models, and with continuous rumble and tumult, news ideas will percolate on how to deliver that new experience to the new consumers of books.
“No matter how apocalyptic the predictions are for the industry, it is my belief that books are here to stay in one iteration or the other,” read the letter.
Allen held court with several reporters in the back of Hue-Man on Monday afternoon and said the reason she’s shutting down the physical store, despite a 37 percent increase in sales, is because “it will never grow fast enough to handle the financial obligations of Harlem.”
“We need to separate into a new model and a new look,” said Allen. “I believe the future bookstore looks like an Apple Store-plus; it doesn’t look like this.”
“In an email, one person said, ‘If I got on my knees and begged you not to go, but to stay in Harlem, would you stay?’” said Allen. “As much as I was resilient and said, ‘I’m not gonna cry,’ you can’t handle that human emotion. We must’ve done something good.” Allen said Hue-Man will continue to hold events around the city for certain book signings. They’re currently working with several local establishments where they can hold soiree-type events.
But Allen wants to start things off with a bang post-closing. For three months, starting on Aug. 1, all products on Hue-Man’s website will be 30 percent off. In the ensuing weeks, Allen said Hue-Man will host signings from Susan Fales-Hill, vice president of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama and a closing ceremony that will include that cast of the Broadway hit “Fela!”
Yes, Hue-Man is going away as a location, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. Allen, an entrepreneur from Jamaica who has had her finger on the pulse of when to step away, isn’t necessarily done with Hue-Man as a physical being yet, despite a lack of timeline. Allen told the AmNews that she plans on traveling the world and checking out bookstores to see how they keep things going. She even made a comparison to an establishment near the Murray Hill-Chelsea area that serves as much more than an eatery.
“Have you guys been to Eataly? It’s really a space,” said Allen. “Yes, they have every imaginable vinegar and olive oil and chocolate, but it’s really a meeting space. And that’s what the future of what a bookstore is gonna be: a meet-up space that offers you what you want.”
People who have visited Hue-Man include Bill Clinton, Rodney King, Tyler Perry, Bill Cosby, Muhammad Ali and Spike Lee. Allen believes that introducing these luminaries to Harlem made people realize that they could do anything they wanted. She also credits Hue-Man with increasing a sense of community and importance of literacy in Harlem.
Allen says that Hue-Man is “moving on physically, but not in spirit.” She reminds shoppers that this was a tough decision, but she hopes that they will support Hue-Man when it reopens sometime in the future with a new format. She advises people to come support Hue-Man on Sept. 6 at Kalahari Harlem with Dwyane Wade.
With only several bookstores left in the Harlem, East Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood areas, supporting businesses that cater to the Black community that aren’t chain stores are becoming harder and harder to find for residents who call the aforementioned neighborhoods home.
“It’s a sad story that I’m leaving. It’s even sadder when I get all the emails,” said Allen. “Sadder when I saw Twitter going crazy. And the outpouring of love that I’ve seen–it’s been a magnificent journey.”