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    The Schomburg Shopthe independent bookstore arm of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, is refocusing its efforts on trade book sales following renovations to the center made possible by a $22 million grant from the New York Public Library.

    Schomburg Shop entranceThis month, these efforts include joining the membership of the American Booksellers Association, Rio Cortez, the store’s new buyer and creative coordinator, told Bookselling This Week. Kevin Young, the center’s director since 2016, has brought a new energy to the association, including an initiative to make the Schomburg Shop more of a traditional independent bookstore, she said.

    Begun with the collections of Afro-Puerto Rican historian Arturo Alfonso Schomburg during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, the Schomburg Center, which is part of the New York Public Library, has long collected, preserved, and provided access to materials documenting black life in America and worldwide. While the store continues on in service of this goal, said Cortez, a new direction helps make the shop more than a straightforward extension of the research center and its activities. 

    Floor to ceiling windows were part of recent renovations at the Schomburg Shop.
    Floor to ceiling windows were part of recent renovations at the Schomburg Shop.

    We’re just getting on the ground running in terms of operating as a trade bookstore,” said Cortez. “We’ve just applied to report our sales to the New York Times, which I think is important as we book more public programs and more events for the future.”

    Following the renovations, the Schomburg Shop, which carries a balance of 65 percent new books and 35 percent other merchandise sold by black vendors, is a bit larger than before, at a little under 1,000 square feet. The shop was also reconfigured as a street-facing space with floor-to-ceiling windows, making it a more modern and convertible space, said Cortez. Several non-physical changes have also taken place along with the renovations as part of Young’s new vision for the store.

    Rio Cortez, buyer and creative coordinator for the Schomburg Shop
    Rio Cortez, buyer and creative coordinator for the Schomburg Shop

    “We’re carrying more books on their on-sale dates, and we’re also carrying more paperback reprints,” said Cortez. “In the past I think what we sold would mostly tie into the public programs we do, but I think now the vision for the shop is to stock any books by black or Caribbean authors or books that are on the subject of the global black experience.”Cortez previously worked in publishing, including at Abrams and in sales and marketing for the indie bookstore channel at Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, and said the store is very focused on diverse publishing for every genre it sells.

    “We are sort of a home base for diverse publishing and diverse books and we have an emphasis on nonfiction books because we’re a research institution, but I would say that our top-selling categories have been children’s books,” said Cortez. “We’re really growing our literary fiction base as well. It’s been interesting and fun to buy according to what our patrons and our community is looking for.”

    Jermel Moody and Virginia Mixon, the Schomburg Shop's store associates
    Jermel Moody and Virginia Mixon, the Schomburg Shop's store associates

    In addition to Cortez and two shop associates, Jermel Moody and Virginia Mixon, the shop also employs several volunteers and interns to run its operations. Cortez said the money the shop makes goes back to the Schomburg Center, with some cycling back into the bookstore’s budget. 

    “The shop has existed here at the Schomburg Center for 11 years, but after some bookstore closures in Harlem over the years, I think we’re trying to think of it as Harlem’s only black-owned bookstore,” said Cortez. “We have some really wonderful authors and we’re trying to represent their titles, but we’re also introducing people to new books on their on-sale dates, which is something new for the store.” When it comes to finding non-book items to sell, Cortez said she looks to buy from Harlem-based vendors. Items currently on sale include African-print aprons from local textile brand Royal Jelly, as well as T-shirts and lapel pins with black historical figures. Proprietary Schomburg products include mugs and magnets with quotes from black writers, politicians, and cultural and historical figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, John Lewis, and Frederick Douglass.

    In addition to books, the Schomburg Shop sells a variety of merchandise like African textiles and crafts from black vendors.
    In addition to books, the Schomburg Shop sells a variety of merchandise like African textiles and crafts from black vendors.

    “We have a great market in Harlem called Sugar Hill, so I’ve gone there to try to meet different local vendors. It’s also been a really supportive grapevine, so if I meet one vendor there, often they will have other recommendations of makers or artists or artisans who work in the community,” said Cortez, noting she also sometimes encounters new sellers on Etsy or Instagram.

    “Our public programs department puts on really wonderful events, and the shop has always been the bookseller for all of our public program events,” Cortez added. So far this year, the store has provided books for events with authors Jesmyn Ward, Jessica B. Harris, and Claudia Rankine. Young launched his new book, Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News (Graywolf Press, November 14), which was longlisted for the National Book Award, at the store this Tuesday. Later this week, the shop will host the poet Nikki Giovanni, and a talk with bestselling YA author Jason Reynolds is scheduled for early next month. 

    Recently, the shop staged an open house with Eric Velasquez, illustrator of Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library (Candlewick), the new children’s book by Carole Boston Weatherford that tells the story of Arturo Schomburg, the Center’s namesake. In the future, Cortez said she hopes to add a book club group and a poetry reading series and to feature more pop-up vendors within the store.