When I started planning my Triangle bookstore tour, I visited Google maps to see just how many bookstores there were, and find their locations. As I scanned the list from Google I was surprised to see The Know Bookstore in Durham, a bookstore I had never heard of. As it turns out, the Know has been around for some time, but as I researched online about the store, I quickly realized it was the first bookstore I had to visit. Located just minutes from North Carolina Central University, a historically black college, the Know is one of the few, if not the only, African-American owned bookstores in the Triangle, and advertises itself as a cultural center, focused on African-American culture, and the history of Africans in the diaspora.
The Know’s owner, Bruce Bridges, leases space for his store from property owner Mozella McLaughlin. Last summer, McLaughlin’s daughter, Gwendolyn McLaughlin Bookman, announced plans for redeveloping the property as a cultural center. Her plans erupted in a very public landlord/tenant dispute , as the redevelopment project left Bridges with less space for his store, and higher rent to boot. The plan hinged on improvement money from the City of Durham. I can’t match the coverage provided elsewhere, notably in the Independent Weekly, but, from what I read it appeared that The Know wouldn’t make it to 2010. As the year came to a close, I knew I had to visit the store while I still could, deciding the slow days at work between Christmas and New Year would be the ideal time for heading across Durham on a lunch break.
As I drove across East Durham from RTP, I had high hopes that a hidden treasure awaited me. It wasn’t entirely clear if the store would relocate or remain in business. The Know didn’t have a web presence, except for a Facebook fan page, so I had little idea what to expect apart from what I had read in the Independent. I wasn’t expecting much, except maybe a bargain or two since, whether relocating or closing, the store would surely be lightening their inventory. I had low expectations, but remained optimistic.
Sadly, the Know didn’t even meet those expectations. Of course, visiting a store for the first time when the store is about to go under is like meeting a dying uncle on his death-bed. In a word, The Know is sad. Books, mostly used, lined the shelves in some random order that escaped me. Fiction, non-fiction, trash, and treasure all sit together on the same shelves. Instead of the lively bookstore and cultural center I hoped to find, the store reminds me of the cast-off book aisle at a thrift store. The lighting is poor, with a buzzing fluorescent tube hanging in the back of the store, adding to the dingy feel. A former ABC store, the building has almost no natural light. Boxes of books crowd the narrow aisles, and the rear of the store houses a collection old office furniture and who-knows-what seemingly thrown in a pile. I suppose it is Bridges’ office, but it was really hard to tell what is going on back there. I couldn’t believe the business had ever thrived, yet the store has been around for years.
As I walked around, Mr. Bridges chatted casually on his cell phone. I can’t blame him for ignoring my presence, his only patron on a cold afternoon; I’m sure he had things on his mind other than me, a customer he had never seen before. As I drove to the store, I had hoped to find At Canaan’s Edge, the third volume in Taylor Branch’s remarkable trilogy about Martin Luther King Jr. and the American civil-rights movement. Not having any luck finding it, I caught Mr. Bridges attention when he finished his call. Unfortunately, he informed me that he didn’t have Branch’s book. We talked for a while, mostly about the newspaper stories I’d read, and the future of his business. He opined that the book business is dying, at least for small retailers like himself, squeezed between Amazon, Wal-Mart, and the major chain bookstores.
After our conversation, I left disappointed at failing to find the one book I came to find, and finding nothing of interest otherwise. As I drove across town back to work, considering what Bridges had to say, I had to wonder where the truth really lay. There are fewer bookstores today than there were not so long ago, with major competitors and internet retailers driving out many small retailers. On the other hand, I’ve been to a lot of good, independent bookstores that manage to hang on year after year, delivering the same product as the large chains, but with better service and more knowledgeable and helpful staff. Some small retailers hang-on, even thrive, by delivering product the chains don’t carry enough of, like specialty bookstores catering to gay and lesbian readers, or Christian bookstores. Usually, a successful independent will stock a deep collection of local authors and books of local interest, or fill some other unusual niche like having a great kids section. When it comes to the web, even the best independent bookstores can’t really compete on convenience with Amazon, yet often their web presence offers unique insights into books, local author interviews, and other features that Amazon can’t match.
The Know is trying to fill a niche, an ever important niche as the cultural memory of segregation and Jim Crow seem to slip away from us. The store’s current troubles seem to revolve around a nasty landlord/tenant dispute, not necessarily Bridges’ business acumen. Yet, in the face of the daunting challenge of managing a bookstore, running it with a little more panache seems like it would help. Keeping the store neat, the aisles clear, the shelves organized, and fixing the lighting, for instance; and having a reasonable web presence is a must, also. Of course, doing all this takes time, money, and effort, with the money hard to come by for an African-American business owner operating off the radar of lenders, the Chamber of Commerce, and City Hall.
I came back one more time in early January, to see if maybe I had misjudged the store. I picked up a few books on my second trip, and talked a little more with Bridges. I wondered if the store had a future, but didn’t have the heart to come out and ask directly. Bridges put a brave face on things, saying he was looking to relocate, but I have my doubts that the Know will survive. Whether the Know survives or not, visiting the store left me with more questions than answers. Were the vibrant local bookstores I love just lucky? Were the internet giants and mega-stores gobbling up all the niche markets? Were all independents doomed to suffer the decline the Know is experiencing? Were the thriving independents just flukes, blessed with a good location, loyal customers, and sharp staff? Was the Know’s circumstance the inevitable fate of the independent bookseller, a fading anachronism superseded by mega-retail giants? Or was it simply a case of a businessman’s noble efforts falling victim to the economics of the times?