The Gallery may soon shut the door on Philly's best-known African-American bookstore.
When Philly author Karen E. Quinones Miller self-published her debut novel, she had a hard time getting bookstores to notice. That is until Basic Black Books ushered her in. Located in the Gallery Mall, the store was one of the first to host Miller and carry her book, Satin Doll, which went from a local must-read to a national best-seller.
"I feel like I owe a tremendous amount of my success to her," says Miller, referring to Basic Black Books owner Lecia Warner. "I don't think I would have had the impact I had without that little store."
For 10 years, Basic Black Books has been home to little-known black authors struggling to make names for themselves. But the literary haven may be forced to close its doors.
Gallery Mall owners have refused to renew the store's lease, which expired on March 31. Until the dust settles, Warner refuses to talk at all, and mall management won't offer specifics about the strained relationship. But the mall's general manager, Larry Howard, says the Gallery will open another African-American bookstore later in the year.
"It's not like we're eliminating the use," says Howard. "We think there's a need for it, and we're going to replace it."
After word spread of the store's imminent demise, supporters sent hundreds of letters to mall management with one simple message: Don't close Basic Black Books. And yesterday a coalition of black authors and book buyers rallied in front of the store to protest any efforts to close it or replace it.
"There are so many authors all over the world who say the same thing about Lecia," says Miller. "She is always just so free with advice and support. She's not just a black bookstore owner, she's an institution."
Like Miller, many authors attest to Warner's unflappable support, especially during their beginning years when mega-chains paid them no mind. This established goodwill has made Basic Black Books a national landmark among the dearth of independent black bookstores.
"Lecia has helped me on so many occasions," says Philly author Leslie Esdaile Banks. "Whatever you need, she always says, 'No problem.' She loves African-American literature, and it's all about supporting the authors. She's just doing what she loves."
According its supporters, Basic Black Books is the only independently owned black bookstore in the city. Over the years, the store has been a mainstay for black authors, aiding the careers of many local authors, including Miller, Banks and PW 's own Solomon Jones, as well as nationally known authors like E. Lynn Harris, Eric Jerome Dickey and Omar Tyree--all of whom have appeared at the store.
Miller says the swelling community support won the store a 10-day lease extension, and Warner is to submit a business plan to the mall's owners by Friday. But the fate of Basic Black Books remains uncertain.
"It's tragic, because there is support by the publishers, the authors and the customers," says Banks. "We need her bookstore."