On a small section of the bustling Nostrand Avenue in Bed-Stuy on Wednesday, July 24, a tightly packed crowd gathered inside a bookstore, with some people spilling out onto the sidewalk. They leafed through items stacked on a table outside. Plastered to the window was a poster that proclaimed, “There are many problems in life: economic, legal, social. The answer to many of these problems can be found in the bookstore.” Just above the poster, a plain sheet of paper printed in a simple font featured a photo of an older, smiling Black man. It read, “Get well soon, Brother Brown.”
Monroe Brown, owner of the six-year-old Afrocentric True South Books, suffered a brain aneurism on Sunday, July 21 and has since been in the hospital in stable yet critical condition. When his son Ajamju Brown informed his father’s landlord of Monroe’s condition last week, Ajamu learned that the rent for the bookstore would switch to a market rate the following month and that he needed to clear the space immediately. The next day, Ajamu found that the locks on True South’s doors had been changed.
“I thought, ‘This is an emergency,’” said Ajamu, 36. He then created a potluck fundraiser event that circulated on Facebook, inviting people into the store to purchase the remaining books and posters. He plans to use the profits to pay the bookstore’s remaining bills. This Tuesday, Ajamu announced that through last week’s book sales and donations, he could afford to pay his father’s rent and keep True South afloat as a brick-and-mortar business through August.
“This is ringing the alarm, letting folks know that if we want to have anything in the community, we have to fight to figure out a sustainable way to preserve it,” he said.
Bed-Stuy, like Bushwick and Crown Heights, has fallen prey to Brooklyn’s sweeping gentrification, forcing longtime residents and proprietors out to clear the way for wealthier masses. True South is steps away from a train station and nestled among trendy eateries, making it prime real estate for incomers with hefty pocketbooks. Brown said the landlord, who works under Spencer Property Management, intended to raise the rent from $2,500 to $3,400.
Some who showed up to the event admitted it was their first time visiting True South, but that did not diminish the urgency of the situation, nor their stake in it.
Kristen Maye moved to Bed-Stuy five months ago and accepted a friend’s invitation to the fundraiser. The 23-year-old interns at a publishing company and talked about the difficulties on the business side of the literary world.
“The written word is on the decline in some senses,” she said, referencing the closure of Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem last year. “But I also harbor some hope that people always put stock into writing things down. The cultural importance of holding knowledge in your hand like that is something that people aren’t going to let go of.”
Akintunde Cousins, another first-timer at True South, echoed Maye’s sentiments. Native to East Flatbush, Cousins attended the fundraiser at his uncle’s beckoning. The client services worker talked about the transcendental meaning of an establishment like Brown’s.
“This is not just a bookstore,” he said. “It’s a cultural institution, because everything in here is what we would be geared toward naturally. It’s books on our history, our development, our spirituality.”
True South also welcomed longtime customers. The Rev. Conrad Tillard, minister of Nazarene Congressional Church and democratic candidate for City Council in the 36th District, has worked with Monroe Brown for years. The Bed-Stuy resident said that Brown offered to hang his campaign signs in the bookstore window; he calls Brown “the common man’s bibliophile.”
Tillard said the possible closure of True South says more about the community’s financial priorities than the state of Black-owned businesses.
“Black folks need to preserve the tradition of reading and engaging in African-American literature,” he said. “You could literally close your eyes and pull something off the shelf, and it would well serve you on the road to self-enlightenment. As far as I know, the clubs and entertainment venues are full.”
Ajamu Brown said he needed to confer with his brother and sister, Monti and Assatte, before deciding on any concrete next steps for the bookstore, but he is already considering ideas.
“It’d be great to hook up with someone who’s really good at marketing and assist with an online presence,” he said. He also wants to collaborate with local educators and students.
“I was encouraging my dad to work with schools, because that’s where it starts—the foundational love of reading and loving your history,” he said. “You have to get that stuff young.”