Black-Owned Bookstore Sees Sales Soar Amid Protests

At Sister’s Uptown Bookstore in Washington Heights, with a huge selection of books dedicated to African American history, culture, and black liberation, books have been flying off the shelves since the protests began

WASHINGTON HEIGHTS - As thousands take to the streets to protest against police brutality and racial inequality, many are inspired to read about the issues. In recent weeks, black-owned bookstores have seen a tremendous spike in sales.

“We sold hundreds of books and I was like, 'oh my, we got money in the bank,'" said Janifer Wilson, who owns Sister’s Uptown Bookstore in Washington Heights.

Opened in 2000, the store stocks a huge selection of books dedicated to African American history, culture, and black liberation.

In response to recent protests, anything related to racism has been flying off the shelves, not just at Sister's Uptown but at stores across the country. This week, nearly every nonfiction book on the New York Times Best-Seller list is about race. Wilson said "How to Be an Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi and "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo are some of the most requested books at her store.

“I think people never focused on the reality of being black in this country," Wilson said. "I think that’s why people want to educate themselves, because it’s never been taught; it’s never been as visual as it is now."

Wilson and her daughter, Kori Wilson, who handles business operations, said it’s bittersweet that it took the death of George Floyd to spark a massive movement focused on ending systemic racism.

“I think what’s different about it this time is that everyone is home and has time to sit and think about the issues in this country,” Kori Wilson said.

Along with protesting and donating, many are also pledging to support black-owned businesses.

For the Amsterdam Avenue bookstore, the spike in sales is coming at one of the most challenging times in its 20-year history. The shop had to temporarily shut off its lights in the middle of March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

To stay afloat, the mother-daughter duo fully transitioned to online sales.

At first, only a few books were being sold each week.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen, how we would make enough money to reopen,” Janifer Wilson said.

But Wilson said she promised herself that she would find a way to revive the shop.

Her initial efforts were frustrating. When she applied for a federal small business loan, she found out she didn't qualify.

But in the last couple of weeks, things have turned around, big time. Sales have increased by 550 percent, and she's now selling more books than at any point in her 20 years of business.

“When you’re closed and there’s no money, Con Edison still wanted their money, the phone company was going to shut us off, so any amount we received was like millions of dollars to us because we were able to pay the bills,” Wilson said with a sigh of relief.

The bookstore grew in popularity overnight after celebrities like Alicia Keys recognized the shop on their social media platforms. In just a few days, non-black people from across the globe were browsing virtually at the Washington Heights store.

“People from Paris were sending us emails, asking for the best books to teach their children about racism and white privilege,” Wilson said.

While the interest is encouraging, Wilson hopes it continues and doesn’t become just another trend on social media.

“The sales are there. There’s no need for loans and no need to worry about repaying those loans. I’m so grateful, I love being a part of this community,” Wilson said, as she packed boxes of books to ship out to her many new customers.

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