Mahogany Gallery, located at 1422 Washington Ave. in Uptown, is an art exhibition area, cultural center and creative space. It’s also a shop selling nearly everything in the room; products include locally made art, apparel, body products, mugs and books.
The large collection of books cover topics of Black history and famous figures, money, religion, sports, children’s literature and coloring books. Books can be bought in-store or online.
Mahogany Gallery is focused on educating, exhibiting and exploring the diaspora of Black American artists, literature and history. Racine native Scott Terry is the proprietor.
“We’ve heard a lot of negativity when it comes to Black people,” Terry said in September when he opened his gallery and bookstore at its current location. “This is a space where we can celebrate and embrace all of our contributions throughout the whole world … We are inventors, we are artists, we are creators, we are musicians, we are authors. We have beautiful stories to tell.”
Owning one of the few Black-owned bookstores in Wisconsin, Terry said he wants to open up minds and offer people access to information.
“Books are a common denominator, an equalizer for everyone to get education. It’s one way I can contribute to the community,” he said.
Promoting the ‘niche’
The African American Literature Book Club, on its website AALBC.com, recognizes Mahogany Gallery on its list of Black-owned bookstores, broken down by state. Currently, Mahogany is the only one on the list for Wisconsin — it’s the only one that fits Johnson’s criteria. But there are other Black-owned bookstores statewide.
Milwaukee’s The Reader’s Choice, which was believed to be the last Black-owned bookstore in Wisconsin, closed in 2017. However, since then, there have been some new Black-owned book businesses that popped up: Darick Books in Milwaukee opened in 2019. Itty Bitty Bookstore in Stoughton opened in January this year. Niche Book Bar, LLC has been a traveling book store on a bike based in Milwaukee since its creation in May 2020, but is en route to open a brick-and-mortar location this spring or summer.
Troy Johnson, president, founder and webmaster of AALBC.com, said in a phone call from his Tulsa, Oklahoma, home that Black-owned bookstores are essential. AALBC.com is a website dedicated to books by or about people of African descent. The website sells books, but there isn’t a brick-and-mortar store.
“A lot of people wonder why I spend so much time promoting my quote-unquote competition,” he said. “I’m more behind promoting this niche.”
Johnson said there is a need for people who can speak to customers in-person who are knowledgeable about books and the community.
“The idea of catering to your local community is something you get from your local individual store,” he said. “And when you have a Black-owned store catering to your community, that’s pretty powerful.”
Not just ‘any bookstore’ Cetonia Weston-Roy, owner of Niche Book Bar, LLC, sells her books online and on her bike. She is working on getting her brick-and-mortar store ready and plans to open it this year.
Weston-Roy grew up in Florida and then moved to Racine. Then she moved to Milwaukee, where she currently lives and hopes to open her brick-and-mortar store.
“Generally you find Black literature in three narratives: slavery, Jim Crow, poverty. I wanted to just not do any bookstore, but a bookstore that would address the concern I was seeing,” Weston-Roy said. “That fills a gap in for people. A lot of people have told me that’s what they felt was missing from reading too, but they couldn’t quite put it into words.”
She said knowing she’s creating a piece of a community where products aren’t nuanced or limited to one tiny section, makes her happy.
The Niche Book Bar features Black literature by local and national Black authors. But Weston-Roy’s bookstore doubles as a wine bar. She has a list of each book genre category and a corresponding wine it pairs best with.
Weston-Roy said she knows of at least one or two other Black entrepreneurs who are trying to start up a full bookstore.
“We won’t be the last one either,” she said. “There’s been great community feedback and turnout and I hope it’s there for years to come.”
Darick Spears, owner of Darick Books, located at 2877 N. 76th St. in Milwaukee, said he always was an avid reader and writer. Opening a store of his own was because of his interest in books.
He created Darick Books in 2018. The brick-and-mortar store, opened in 2019, houses his more than 70 self-written books, as well as self-created albums and film.
Spears grew up in Milwaukee, where he said he is used to being the only Black person in certain areas of town. In some areas, he didn’t know of any Black-owned stores, period, let alone Black-owned bookstores.
“I hadn’t come across any of them,” he said.
Reading was not popular with the friends and the circles he grew up in.
“If you’re reading or writing a book, that ain’t cool. Even to this day, there’s not a lot of people who I know who just love literature and reading.”
So, he wanted to be able to supply the materials and motivate the Black community to read. He’s also hoping to connect with inner city youth and do some reading or writing sessions with them.
“They can see somebody who looks like them being an entrepreneur,” he said. “We can be writers and artists and stuff like that and have a business and still be cool. That is important for them to see that, see what they can do. They have another avenue which they can take.”