Farewell, Black Images

Emma Rodgers, the founder of Dallas' oldest black bookstore, has e-mailed me that she's finally going to close Black Images Book Bazaar. The store will shutter at the end of the month. And this time, it's going to happen; it'll have been 20 years for Black Images in its Wynnewood Village location and almost 30 years since Emma began the store as a mail-order outfit.

In 2004, Emma announced she was going to pull the plug but then didn't when just enough community response allowed to her to sign a new, but shorter lease. She says she's planning on setting up a way for customers to help pay off Black Images' debt.

More than anyone, Emma showed me how much an independent bookstore can bring to a community. Here's my column from April 2004:

Era's end tears at the heart
by Jerome Weeks

Last fall, Emma Rodgers, owner of Black Images Book Bazaar, and I spoke about authors she was bringing to town -- who was coming and when.

Though its author wasn't on her list, I had been impressed by The Known World, a new novel by an African-American author I'd never heard of, Edward P. Jones. If he ever came to Dallas, I said, I might want to talk to him.

Emma got him to Dallas in October. Got him on KERA, got him to her store, got an audience.

This is not about Emma doing me a favor. It's about her helping Dallas readers in general and the black community, specifically. And how all of that help is going away.

Emma Rodgers brought in Mr. Jones and filled her store six months before he won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1998, she did the same with another unknown writer, Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family, a controversial history of his white family's blood relations with the black families they once owned. Emma sold me on talking to him, filled her store again. And this was seven months before Slaves in the Family won the National Book Award.

In short, Emma has brought authors to Dallas no one else would. Or before anyone else would. She's sold their book, got people talking about them. Even for celebrity authors such as Walter Mosley or Tavis Smiley, her store is a required stop in Dallas.

So when Mrs. Rodgers told me this week that she's planning to shut down her store when her lease is up next year, it came as a shock.

Yes, it's the old story about a small outlet being undersold by the chains, Web sites and huge discounters like Wal-Mart. And yes, Afro Awakenings in Arlington closed last year, so it shouldn't have been entirely unexpected.

But Ms. Rodgers and her partner, Ashira Tosihwe, have run a store in Wynnewood Village since 1986, a heroic lenght of time for a black bookstore in Texas. I wasn't the only one who thought she'd be there forever.

"A lot of us in the community," said Harry Robinson, Jr., president and chief executive officer of the African American Musuemm, "thought Emma was invincible."

Emma should be near-invincible (as close as a specialty store can get). No one else in Dallas really does what she does -- not on her scale, not with her selection.

But one of the disturbing aspects of Black Images' slow demise is that it has no single villain. Wynnewood Village isn't being torn down for a mini-mart nor has the landlord jacked up Emma's rent, forcing her to close. There's no nearby superstore crushing her.

Emma's problems are long term, broadly based and not easily turned around. It has actually been a mark of the success of specialty stores -- gay bookstores, comics, Christian -- that their products are now mainstream. And half of all book sales in American aren't in bookstores at all but in drugstores, computer stores.

As the poet Nikki Giovanni said last week, "I saw the new Toni Morrison on sale for $12 at Kroger's. Who would have thought?"

We pay more at Black Images because we pay for Emma's wisdom, her support of authors, the depth of her stock, her ties to community groups and events. Books have meant more in the African-American community than just books. Literacy and education were once the hopes for getting away from slavery, out of the ghetto, into power. So bookstores have been cultural crossroads, Ms. Giovanni said, information centers.

"You remember [in the movie] Barbershop, they call the barbershop 'the black man's country club'?" she said. "Well, the bookstore is our mall. It's where we meet, where we talk. In the '60s, in Harlem, at 125th and 7th? That was Louis Michaux's bookstore.

"And that's where you'd go if you wanted to talk to Malcolm X."

April 4, 2004. Copyright, The Dallas Morning News

December 8, 2006 11:50 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on December 8, 2006 11:50 AM.

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