by Pat Holt

Tuesday, February 23, 1999



It's 6:45 p.m. on a wet and chilly night in Oakland, Calif., as Cherysse Richardson sets out a stack of books on the counter of Marcus Books. An air of expectation and urgency fills this much-loved independent bookstore, which, with its sister store in San Francisco, has been serving the African American community in the Bay Area for nearly 40 years.

The author appearing tonight is Clarence Nero, a 27-year-old chemist whose first novel, "Cheekie" (Council Oak,; 276 pages; $18.95), has received positive though infrequent reviews. As Cherysse sets up the folding chairs for Clarence's reading, she turns up the volume on the store's subtly powerful stereo. Some great oldies, starting with Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By," fill the store, making the place all the more cozy as night descends and squalls of rain slap the display windows outside.

Of course, the mid-range novel has been declared dead for nearly a year now (following Bertelsmann's acquisition of Random House, you remember), and what a self-fulfilling prophesy that turned out to be.

With continued closings of independent bookstores, sticky-fingered chains (and now Amazon) demanding more payola for placement of "recommended" titles, and the over-the-top commercialization of the book industry (hey, there's more to life than a 2-million-copy first printing of John Grisham), you'd think Oprah Winfrey was the only person "out there" touting the benefits of a good, unhyped story.

So the question of tonight is: Can a "small" book still make its way in the world? Can a mid-range novel with the quietly undramatic title of "Cheekie," written by an unknown writer, published by a small press and promoted with a limited author tour, find an audience outside (or deep within) the mainstream?

Well, it's 7 p.m., and if the look of this empty store is any indication, the answer is no. Clarence glances nervously at the door, but Cherysse and her mother, store owner Blanche Richardson, seem unconcerned. They move systematically around the store, tidying up African American books of such range and variety they seem to burst from every nook and cranny.

Calla Devlin, marketing manager for Council Oak, smiles encouragingly at Clarence as she arranges the stacks of "Cheekie" on the counter and runs her hand lovingly over the beautifully designed black-colored jacket (with a stunning cover illustration by Carol Stanton). "If you give this book a chance," she says, "it'll change lives. So we're sort of doing this one reader at a time."

Conventional wisdom in the book industry might not give "Cheekie" much of a chance. Published in April of last year, the novel was praised as that rare book for adults and young readers, yet it never quite got off the ground. Much of its 5000-copy first printing is still at the warehouse, and Council Oak, the Oklahoma house noted for backing minority writers, hasn't been able to garner much media coverage.

By 7:15 p.m. still no one has walked through that door, but happily there aren't a lot of mopey faces at Marcus Books. Even Holt Uncensored, ready to blame the chains and Amazon for anything from hangnails to rotten weather, gamely takes a seat among the empty chairs to talk to Clarence about the book.

"Cheekie" is the story of a boy growing up in a New Orleans housing project called The Desire (located on the street made famous in "Streetcar Named Desire"). Clearly autobiographical, the narrative might seem episodic and one-dimensional if it weren't for Clarence's gift for beautifully captured dialogue and characters made vivid in the violent yet often hilarious chaos of his extended family.

Cheekie's mother, Faye - 13 when she meets his father, pregnant at 15 - attempts to carve out a "normal" life, but normalcy at The Desire, we learn, is controlled by poverty, roaches, beatings, drugs, unemployment and the terrible prospect of having no future while growing old.

In these close and unforgiving quarters, Cheekie witnesses everything from sweaty and heaving sexual episodes to excruciating violence aimed toward his mother and himself. Gestures of exquisite tenderness and dignity from his mother's men friends and neighbors can turn instantly into blistering attacks.

At the same time, raw, blunt talk among Faye's women friends relays as much love and unexpected humor as anger or despair. For example, after her fourth pregnancy, Faye gravely turns to the doctor and says, "Now doctor I want you to tie my tubes because I don't want to have no more children. This is definitely my last one. In fact, I want you to burn them suckers, because this shit is too painful."

That's mild language compared to the advice of Faye's best friend, L'il Soul, to a young woman about sleeping with men on the first date: " 'Cause, child, when a man has to wait too long to get the stuff, he starts feeling like you playing the pussy game. So, while you waiting to give it up, he done already moved on to someone else. And when you come along like the virgin Mary to get with the program, oh, he takes it gladly, then kicks you to the curb."

It's pretty rough stuff for Young Adult readers, but as Clarence says, "this is what kids see every day in the projects. Reading about it gives them something to go on: If Cheekie can get through this day after day, they can get through it. Women sometimes say it's encouraging to see Cheekie's mother grow from a teenaged mother to somebody who's getting her act together."

In fact, Calla says, "a woman's prison in Louisiana wants Clarence to come talk to them because the story touched them so deeply." Clarence is also somebody who gets the attention of young men in gangs or caught up in drug-dealing: He lost a brother and two cousins in shootings, and another cousin to AIDS.

"These are things I understand," he says, "and I don't see an end to the madness - I see it continuing, and we're not dealing with it. The Desire was torn down a while ago, but things in the projects have gotten worse. Even at Desire, there was a community spirit, but now you just see these places infested with crack."

His visits to schools are always a hit, Calla says. "This week he talked to groups ranging from 80 kids to 400. He's a sweet-mannered man to us, but extremely tough-minded with students. 'Your story is worth something,' he says to them. 'You can stick it out.' "

"A lot of people [on the outside] can't relate to them," says Clarence, "or to the negative influences constantly pushed in their faces every day." As the only person in his family to go to college, Clarence turned to writing after graduation from Howard University because "it was bigger than me. It was a way to deal with what happened."

By 7:20 p.m. everybody at Marcus has pretty much given up on an audience for tonight, so Clarence talks about similar experiences in other African American bookstores. In Atlanta, he recalls, "the owner of the store went out in the mall and said, 'Come meet this author - he's very exciting.' People respected her and came in." In Washington, D.C., where he works, and in New Orleans, friends and family flooded the store.

One supporter was Maya Angelou, who bought 50 books, had Clarence sign them and later introduced him to Oprah Winfrey. "What's this book about?" someone asked Angelou. "Why," she said grandly, "it's about life."

By 7:30 p.m., a couple of Clarence's friends arrive to buy the book and take him to dinner. Blanche comes over to give Clarence a big hug. She's proud of him, she says, and proud to have the stack of his first novel for sale. As Cherysse makes sure he's signed all the remaining books, Blanche's smile confirms that the store will sell them all eventually - though it won't be as easy as it used to be.

"We have been as affected by Barnes & Noble and Borders as everyone else," Blanche says. "They take business away from us, even though they will never have the stock we have, or the knowledge about black books, or the history we have in the community."

She shrugs. "It's like Safeway opening up next to the mom-and-pop store - people are just going to go rushing in there. But I see what these chains do as an assault on us culturally. I think our community's in big trouble without black bookstores - we lose our progressiveness, certainly our knowledge base, and that's scary. Just to lose the diversity of independent stores in this area is tremendous."

What to do about it? "Well, one way is to alternate who we're on credit hold with," she laughs. "In fact, we keep our heads above water because we went into the business for reasons other than making money." She looks over at Clarence, whose books are still sitting in a stack on the front counter.

"Hey, Marcus is a family operation," Blanche says. "If nobody gets a raise for five years, we can all go over to my mom's house and eat. And believe me, we do."

Blanche's parents started Marcus Books in 1960, when her mother, Dr. Raye Richardson, was head of black studies at San Francisco State University. Her father, Dr. Julian Richardson, continues to run the family lithography firm out of the Oakland store and does the bookkeeping for both stores. "They still set policy and keep us straight," says Blanche, "and remind us why we don't all have Mercedes."

Today, four generations of Richardsons are working in the store, and like other independents, Blance worries about "the threat of chain stores taking over the publishing world, over who gets published and who writes, over what information is available to readers."

Blanche edits a number of authors on the side ("editing pays the rent sometimes," she admits), so she is asked this question: After the surprise success of "Waiting to Exhale," weren't publishers who were looking for the "next Terry McMillan" throwing a lot of money at young black women writers, some of whom weren't ready to publish?

"In some ways, that's true," she says. "I accuse some black writers - but it is the publishers as well - of chasing after that Terry McMillan money, without realizing that Terry is an excellent and educated writer who writes from her own voice and heart. I tell young writers you can't just step in and do that when you have a perfectly good heart, voice and story of your own.

"But for a while, that's all we were hearing. I used to laugh with Terry about this all the time. 'Here comes another story with four single women having men problems.' The quirk is that suddenly all these MEN began writing about four African American women having men problems, using a woman's voice."

She gazes at her author of the evening. "It's refreshing to see someone like Clarence writing, because there's not enough diversity these days in terms of who gets published in the black community."

That's one reason why "Cheekie" is going to last. It stands out; it has a devoted following; and "it can be hand-sold quite well," Blanche says. "We sold about 30 books before tonight and will sell another 30 in time." By anybody's lights, that's a huge number of copies for a mid-range novel by an unknown.

Doesn't it matter that the book was published last April? Haven't other stores returned it by now?

"Well, here is something new that's happening. Since authors and publishers have gotten their own websites up, we've been getting calls for one- and two-year-old books people think have just been published. We say, 'oh, that book's been out for a year or so' and the customer is just floored. But they don't care, really. They saw it on the Internet, and they want it right now." By the way, the best way to order the book from Marcus is by faxing 415 931-1536.

By 7:45 p.m. everybody's heading out into the howling rain outside, not worried in the least that a promising young author had a book signing at the famous Marcus Books in Oakland - and nobody came. "Publishers have high expectations sometimes," says Blanche, "but of course I do, too. If an autographing doesn't work I feel guilty and drive myself crazy that I didn't do enough to get people here. Still, a lot of times just getting the information out that a writer was here will get the book selling again."

As Calla Devlin says, every "small" book by an unknown writer has to earn its audience one reader at a time. That's the way Barbara Kingsolver did it, and Frank McCourt, and John Grisham. And if one day "Cheekie" becomes the kind of classic backlist for Young Adults that changes the lives of thousands of readers, maybe hundreds of thousands, surely the credit will go to independent stores like Marcus Books for believing that the writer-reader connection is the spark that ignites all.


At last word comes that bookstores having a rough time keeping afloat CAN go nonprofit, at least in part, in an uncomplicated way that supports the store yet still allows real profits to remain in the store. Here's the general idea (and the first tipoff to me) from reader Debra Hiers:

"I'm responding to the info from the lawyer on non-profit status for bookstores. I wanted to let you know of a bookstore here in Atlanta that has successfully integrated a non-profit into their survival strategy.

"Charis Books is a community-based feminist bookstore, now in its 25th year! For years Charis had supported a regular Thursday evening author/reader event, had sponsored anti-racism forums, had started a teens writing group, and other educational programs. As things got tougher for indies, a core group of individuals came forward to form the Charis Circle as a nonprofit, which is now responsible for funding and staffing these community outreach programs, including their author events.

"[The Circle] has really made all the difference. But, as the lawyer implied, this did not involve the store itself becoming a non-profit. Rather it was forming a non-profit to specifically support Charis's community and educational outreach programs. Perhaps this is similar to what GAIA Bookstore in Berkeley is thinking about doing."

What a great story: Reached by telephone (just as one of the Circle's many committees was about meet), co-owner Sherry Emory said that sure enough, Charis now has "two separate business licenses [profit and nonprofit]. The Circle supports funding and programming of events in the store, and this has increased exponentially.

"The first year the Circle raised $35,000. Last year it was $60,000, and next year our budget is for $75,000. We hope the more we develop new programming, the more new people come into the store. The money the Circle has raised pays a third of the rent, staff time for programs, advertising and the like."

The Charis Circle is directed by a board of 12 members now in their third year, Sherry said. Committees work separately on fund-raising, newsletter, a "Girls to Women" program and grant writing (so far Charis has received three grants).

The program committee creates three events a year, and this group gets to be as innovative and have as much fun as staff and customers can hope for. A recent program, "Cooking with Honey," provided various recipes and food that people ate as literary pieces were read aloud.

All in all, The Charis Circle sounds perfect, but isn't it exhausting for the owners to keep both nonprofit and profit-making aspects running at once? "We would say it's energizing," Sherry replied. "Every single night of the week there's a meeting or a program that we just get to dream up and go do. Right now we've got 15 women in here talking about a 10-day event to celebrate the store's 25th birthday."

Charis is not a big store - it's 1100 square feet - but now it's got a budget and community support that can make it stretch out into the community farther than any big box store in the area.


Dear Pat Holt,

I love your column, and I was interested to see this week's commentary regarding the Imus Book Awards. I was fortunate enough to be employed as Taylor Branch's research assistant while he was working on his Imus-nominated nonfiction work, PILLAR OF FIRE.

While I have never listened to Imus' radio program, the "dead dog's penis" comment you quoted and the fact that he is competing with Howard Stern give me some idea of the level of discourse that must be going on there. However, I just wanted to state that even if Imus is a jerk, he couldn't have found a more deserving nominee than Taylor Branch. I spent two and a half years working with Taylor, and he is one of the most generous, committed, brilliant individuals I've ever had the privilege to know.

Despite the fact that his books have been successful, I also know that because they take him so long to write, he makes a pretty modest living. Considering that he has two kids rapidly approaching college age, I suspect that any money he wins from Imus and B&N will be put to very good use. Also, it may reassure you to know that Taylor is incredibly supportive of the independent bookselling community in Baltimore, where he lives.

(Interestingly, Baltimore's most prominent book retailer, Bibelot, is a locally owned chain of Borders/B&N-sized stores that is extremely responsive to the community, hosting numerous events for Maryland authors and an annual "Book Bash" which raises funds for local groups promoting literacy.) I believe all of his Bay Area signings for PILLAR OF FIRE were also held in independent bookstores, such as Cody's.

Anyway, even if Taylor walks away with the two hundred grand, I don't think his association with these two rather sleazy enterprises will affect his pro-independent values one iota.

Sue Trowbridge,