Front of Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe. Image by the author.

“People don’t live in cities: they live in neighborhoods. Neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are the building blocks of cities. If neighborhoods die, cities die.”
—Monsignor Geno Baroni, from the Anacostia Community Museum’s
A Right to the City exhibit

Despite fears of the death of bookstores, independent brick-and-mortar shops have seen a surge in popularity across the US over the past decade, including here in DC. But rising property values are taking a toll on some local shops.

Consider the plight of Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe in the Pleasant Plains neighborhood on Georgia Avenue, a few blocks from Howard University. Higher property values in the area have driven up the store’s tax burden to more than $30,000 a year. Now its owners are petitioning the District for relief.

"Haile's picks": Books recommended by Sankofa's co-owner, Haile Gerima. Image by the author.

DC has about 20 independent bookstores. A number of them are black-owned, including Charnice Milton Community Bookstore at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia, Loyalty Bookstore in Petworth, Mahogany Books in Anacostia, Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe in Pleasant Plains, and Walls of Books in Park View.

These black-owned bookstores are important to celebrate for many reasons, including the resilience they represent. Besides the historic violence of forbidding enslaved people the right to literacy, would-be black business owners continue to be blocked from accessing capital. Discriminatory finance practices, such as being charged higher rates for bank accounts and mortgages and facing extra scrutiny by potential lenders, disproportionately harm black business owners.

Nonetheless, many of DC’s black-owned bookstores are thriving—notwithstanding rising rents, increased tax burdens, and tight profit margins. Owners say community support is what enables them to remain neighborhood establishments.

Inside of Mahogany Books in Anacostia with employee Christina Joy. Joy is herself an entrepreneur, as the owner and editor of Our Black Book magazine.  Image by the author.

At a public hearing on June 3, Sankofa’s owners plan to seek a 10-year tax abatement through a bill introduced by Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1). While there are major incentives for new developments to “revitalize” underinvested areas, such help is not always available for existing local businesses. These local retailers can have trouble paying their taxes, and may be forced to move or shutter as a result.

“We are caught in the mix of this whirlwind of development. And historically, development has been at a cost to black communities and communities of color,” says Shirikiana Aina Gerima, a filmmaker and co-owner of Sankofa.

With her husband Haile Gerima (also a filmmaker), they opened the store in 1998 following the success of their 1993 film of the same name about finding and returning to one’s African roots. “We wanted to have a place where we could sell DVDs or videos, at that time, by ourselves and by other filmmakers of color around the world. The idea then evolved [to] an expectation of good film as good literature. We have relationships with black publishers around the country…so that authors have a network,” Shirikiana says.

"Black Books Matter" pins at Mahogany Books. Image by the author.

Tom Fazzini, Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director for Nadeau, believes that a tax abatement will help Sankofa, but he says it’s not enough. Ultimately more programs, and more funding for existing help like DC’s Main Streets initiatives, are necessary to retain local businesses.

“Gentrification is hitting lower Georgia Ave, which affects small business owners just as much as residents. When rents or property taxes increase, it puts tremendous pressure on our long-time small business owners,” Fazzini says. “Longtime residents tell the Councilmember: ‘We don’t recognize our neighborhoods anymore. All the new things being built, are not being built for us’ [while] newcomers are saying: ‘Please do not let our presence wipe away the vibrant culture that first attracted us to the District.”

While new black-owned bookstores have opened in neighborhoods undergoing change, their owners recognize that they too are in a precarious situation.

“Sankofa is an institution, holding down representation in gentrifying Washington, DC. They are kind of a beacon. So we are definitely affected by what’s happening,” says Hannah Oliver Depp, the owner of Loyalty Books (formerly Upshur Street Books).

Front of Loyalty Bookstore. Image by the author.

For Depp, the danger of losing her business comes not only from online retailers like Amazon, but also from local pressures like a heavy tax burden and rising rent.

“It is something that I am constantly thinking about: how can I pay my staff so that they can also live in the community? How can I make sure that our rent doesn’t skyrocket? I mean store rent, let alone housing costs. You are in a precarious position if you don’t hold your building,” she says.

For the time being, what makes these black-owned bookstores succeed is neighborhood support, including public policies geared towards ensuring affordability in the real estate market, creative community lending practices, and customers choosing to shop in person. Depp has benefitted from membership support and community investors, and is now looking to open a second location in Silver Spring.

“Why independent stores have actually been having resurgence is because they are great community places, and that is what Amazon can never be,” says Depp.

This article is part of the GGWash Urbanist Journalism Fellowship, made possible in part by the Island Press Urban Resilience Project and the Meyer Foundation.

ThienVinh Nguyen is an Urbanist Journalism Fellow with Greater Greater Washington. Vietnamese-born, California-grown, ThienVinh resides in the verdant neighborhood of Deanwood. She focuses on stories about civic engagement, urban development and planning issues that are simultaneously critical and hopeful. ThienVinh holds degrees from UCLA, Columbia University, and the University of London (UCL).