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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

R.I.P Hue-Man Bookstore

I recently read that the Hue-Man Bookstore in Harlem will be closing on July 31, 2012. The owners of Hue-Man say that they lost their lease and they couldn’t afford the rent anymore.

I can’t say that I’ll miss it.

I went to visit the Hue-Man Bookstore several times on my trips to Harlem as a publisher and as a customer. And on both fronts I wasn’t impressed.

Some will say that eBooks killed Hue-Man the same way it killed Borders.

eBooks had nothing to do with the demise of Hue-Man. From a business perspective, Hue-Man was a hot mess.

Plain and simple Hue-Man was mismanaged. From what I saw on the sales floor the owners were clearly not prepared to compete with other booksellers like Barnes & Noble and online stores like

While the store had a great layout with lots of lighting and a comfortable environment, customer service was poor. On my two trips there I was greeted coldly by some clerks and ignored by others. I’ve had family members tell me they were rushed out of the store and greeted gruffly, asked what they wanted and how long they were staying.

That’s a huge difference from the experience I had when me and my sister visited Barnes and Noble on 86th Street and the one on 47th Street. If I wanted help, I could just go to an information desk or a computer kiosk. And the store was so inviting I’d stay there for an hour or so perusing the shelves looking for something to buy.

Along with the poor customer service there was the poor quality merchandise at Hue-Man. When one first walked into the store, they were greeted with magazines several months behind those on the newsstands further down the block on Lenox Avenue. Worse, they were dog eared, creased and not fit for sale.

No book store manager worth their salt wants old dog eared and creased magazines on their shelves. It’ it leaves a bad first impression on customers. And it makes a statement about the management of the store that it doesn’t care.

Along with the old damaged magazines Hue-Man stocked old editions of paperbacks. Books from as far back as 1991.

A good store manager makes sure to make sure that the most recent edition of a book is available on the shelf. If they don’t have that edition, then they discount an older book. 

Besides, Old books aren't how a new bookstore competes in a city where there's a Barnes & Noble and local bookstore almost every ten to fifteen  blocks with fresh discounted merchandise on the shelves. 

And it's not how a new bookstore competes with used bookstores and street vendors You can get the same 1991 edition of that book cheap at a used bookstore, a Goodwill or from a street vendor for just 99 cents to a dollar.

 On top of the paperbacks being old, they were being sold at full retail price. I’ve seen paperbacks priced as high as $21 on my trips there. That’s not competitive, especially for a small bookstore looking to compete with Barnes &; Noble and Discounts are the lifeblood of the book business and small bookstores should always have titles on sale to compete with the big chains.

Along with the poor inventory, people couldn’t find books they wanted. I’ve had family members and several friends go there and ask for titles only to be told they couldn’t get them. Simple stuff like Manchild in the Promised Land, Autobiography of an ex-colored man, Three Negro Classics or anything by Richard Wright, Maya Angelou or Ralph Ellison.

That’s ridiculous.

Every bookstore large or small should be connected to the Ingram database and the Baker & Taylor database. Every bookstore should be able to order a title for a customer by punching in the title. Bronx Book Place on Fordham Road in the Bronx used to do that easily back in the day when it was running.

But Hue-Man couldn’t.

Nor did the owners focus on the three big seasons of the publishing world like most book retailers and publishers did. Everyone in publishing knows that the summer, Back-to-school and Christmas/New Years’ are the biggest periods of the year in the book world. That’s when publishers release new titles and stores order new merchandise.

But Hue-Man was never stocked for those busy periods. They never had Children’s or YA books stocked for the summer reading lists. They never had new romances on the shelves for the women for their beach reads or summer vacations. They never had Black classics on the shelf for the Back-to-school rush or the college rush.

Then there was the way Hue-Man mistreated local authors and self-published authors. When I went to promote The Cassandra Cookbook back in 2008, I was completely blown off.

And when I went to promote All About Marilyn in 2010 and ask about a book signing and stocking my title there, I was told I’d have to bring my own books and pay them $100 an hour for the session.

On hearing I'd be charged to do a book signing, I left and never came back. And I’m sure other local self-published authors did as well.

I feel that was one of the nails put in Hue-Man’s coffin.

Small bookstores make most of their money from selling books published by local self-published authors and small press authors. These publishers provide small retailers with niche books that allow them stand out and compete with the big chains. When customers can touch and peruse these titles first hand there’s a high chance they may buy them and tell their friends where to buy them as well.

That kind of word-of-mouth is money in the bank for a small business.

And the book signings from self-published and small press authors provide the type of publicity that bring in foot traffic from casual buyers and people off the street who want to find out what’s going on. It’s these small events from small authors that build a book store’s long-term reputation and leave a big impact on the community allowing customers in the community to form a relationship with the store and its staff. Again, these smaller events are the kind that build the word-of-mouth that bring new customers into a retail establishment.

But the owners of Hue-Man didn’t understand that.

Instead they tried to bring traffic into bookstores with book signings from celebrity authors like Bill Clinton, Toni Morrison, and Hill Harper.

Now celebrities may bring floods of customers in for the short-term, but it doesn’t work in sustaining a bookstore’s reputation long term. People may come to see the celebrity for a day but they don’t have an experience that allows them to form a relationship with the business.

A person can get a copy of a Bill Clinton, Toni Morrison or Hill Harper book from a Barnes & Noble. They could probably get his autograph there too.

But they can’t get a Shawn James book there. Nor could they meet him, get his autograph and talk to him live and in person. Nor could they tell their friends about his new book and the unique bookstore where they bought it from.

That was the advantage Hue-Man pissed away pandering to celebrities.

People need to come to the bookstore for a reason. They need to form a relationship with a store, and the staff who work there. They need to remember something special. Something like meeting a small local up-and-coming author from the community. Someone just like them. Someone who will inspire them to come back and buy more books or even write their own.

Moreover, they need to see distinct products they can’t get at the chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Amazon. The kinds of products priced at a competitive discount that give them an incentive to not hurry over to and order a book online.

It's clear to me the owners of the Hue-Man Bookstore clearly didn't understand the book business. While they had a noble mission in serving the African-American community it's clear  they took their customers for granted from day one. They thought that by just being Black-owned and Black themed was enough to compete in the retail book market.  Unfortunately, A good book retailer needs more than color to get customers to peruse the content of their shelves. In a world where a person can easily download an eBook with a tap click from an e-reader, tablet, iPod or a cell phone, a smart bookseller understands they need to offer readers things like unique titles, good customer service and a relationship that keeps them coming back to buy paperbacks and hardcovers.


  1. You are wrong about this. I own a small bookstore, Babbo's Books, in Brooklyn. In nearly 6 years in business, I have had luck selling only one self-published title. And the sales of that title don't compare to the sales of trade published books. I sell some books from small presses but, overwhelmingly, my sales are of books from mainstream publishers.

  2. No, I'm not wrong. Hue-man alienated self-published authors like myself by ignoring us and charging us to use their space. Most walked away from that store and it hurt them. Local authors bring business into stores, especially if they advertise on social media.

    I offered Hue-Man books for FREE and offered to take them back if they didn't sell. They blew me off TWICE not understanding I had a following of readers from this blog. People who could have helped that store stay afloat.

    And the trade market collapsed in 2008. That switched the power to the authors. Authors are now taking control of their own careers publishing eBooks and paperbacks cutting out the middlemen like literary agents and bookstores.

    Trade books may sell more now, but they don't give a local small local shop a competitive advantage against Barnes & Noble and Amazon long-term.

    All most customers are doing these days is going to a local shop scanning the barcode or ISBN and head over to amazon to buy that same book for 1/3 the price with FREE shipping or buy the eBook for 99 cents to $4. Local authors help a store draw more customers with a well-promoted book signing. Moreover,they get the community involved in the store. Maybe you like Hue-Man didn't try to promote them effectively or you just blew them off.

    Small shops NEED that personal connection with customers. And Hue-Man BLEW PEOPLE OFF. That's why they're out of business.

    Relationships with small local authors HELP small bookstores stay in business and COMPETE.

    Before Borders went out of business it made its MARK by stocking self-published and small press books. That's what allowed them to compete for close to 40 years. But when they shifted to a commercial trade press model focusing on bestsellers, they went straight out of business.

    eBooks aren't killing bookstores. It's the snarky attitude of surly bookstore owners and their staff that are turning off customers. If retailers would take the time to form a relationship with customers maybe they'd think twice about buying books at amazon or B&N.

  3. I think you've done us all a favor with this blog. As a race, when we run businesses, we've got to knock it off with the surliness, the overpriced goods, and the "We don't realy need you" attitude. It's a crying shame when so many of us African Americans want to patronize fellow AA's that we get the brushoff and are left with the feeling that we can buy it or leave it. The sellers could not care less.

    So, please mine this subject more often. You'll do the black businesses that want and try to do the right thing forge ahead, and clip the wings of the ones who just "ain't ready."

  4. Shawn,

    Sounds like sour grapes....In your post your facts are all wrong, your grammar, spelling and use of words are bad and your attitude is worse. I see a pattern here of a lack of excellence....

  5. Someone trying to minimize my work here.
    Sour grapes? More like someone is jealous. Another wanna-be English teacher trying to refute an iron-clad argument with an ad-hominem attack.

    Here's the deal: The Hue-Man bookstore is gone because it didn't support local authors. It treated local authors like garbage, and local authors are what you need to build your business if you are a bookstore.

    it didn't support the community. It had some of the worst customer service and the worst products. A business can't compete by just being BLACK. You have to have a good business strategy which Hue-Man did not.

  6. Oh and right now Barnes & Noble is losing money by following the same model as Borders and Hue-Man. Horrible customer service, incompetent employees are driving that bookstore into the ground.