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Michele Lewis was struck with the entrepreneurial spirit as a kid selling candy and frozen ice cream cups in New Orleans. In college she became a voracious reader of African American books and knew she wanted to own a bookstore. By the time she was 26, she owned three. The Afro-American Book Stop is New Orleans’ first African American multilocation bookstore.
It may sound like a success story but Lewis says it hasn’t been easy. In 1992, Lewis, now 30, sold books part time from a card table she set up outdoors in the French Quarter while still holding a full-time job at a bank. “It was a low-cost way to start a business,” she explains. And also a smart one. She used $1,000 in personal savings to start the business and purchased her books from a wholesaler.
Several months and hundreds of books later, she opened her first bookstore. She tried to juggle both jobs for nearly two years, but finally decided to devote herself to her business venture. She opened a second store in a mall, figuring the foot traffic would be worth the high rent. In July 1996, she opened the third store in a mall adjacent to the Superdome.
Lewis soon made what she considers to be a bad decision. In September 1997, she closed the smallest store to open one in Shreveport, Louisiana. She wasn’t prepared for the town’s chilly reception. Editorials and letters in local newspapers denouncing the black bookstore as exclusionary seemed to intimidate many people, and the strong sales she had anticipated never materialized. She closed the store a year later and reopened in New Orleans.
Today, Lewis’ biggest concern is withstanding the competition from retailers like Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble and Borders. “They sell books cheaper than we can even buy them,” she says. Last year, revenues were down 17% from $415,000 the year before. She trimmed her staff from 10 to six. Lewis is counting on customer service to ultimately give her the edge. She also hosts author signings and special events to draw more community members into her store.
Besides selling books, she is determined to do two other things: (1) convince African Americans to support one another in business; and (2) dispel the myth that African Americans don’t read.
Her missions and accomplishments haven’t gone unnoticed. In 1998, she was named National Black Bookseller of the Year and was the first African American ever elected president of the local booksellers’ organization. Acknowledgments like this help strengthen her resolve to stick it out.
“I have considered walking away,” says Lewis. “But I’m going to hang in here until there are no more customers.”
Afro-American Book Stop, 5700 Read Blvd., #275, New Orleans, LA 70127; 504-243-2436