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African-American bookstore finds a niche

When Mood Makers Books opened in 1994 at the Village Gate, it was one of 300 to 400 African-American bookstores nationally that belonged to the American Booksellers Association.

“Now, if you can find a good 100 African American bookstores, I’d be surprised,” says owner Curtis Rivers, who has survived more than 20 years of upheaval in the industry.

Remaining profitable in an online environment has been challenging, he says.

“Revenues are not like they used to be. They’ve dropped—that’s the Amazon effect. So, you have to find niches and other ways to counter that.”

Rivers offers sections focused on religion, Africa and African culture and black studies. He specializes in selling items for Kwanzaa celebrations. Four or five years ago, he says, urban novels were big. Lately, he says he’s focusing more on children’s books.

“Children’s books seem to sell better than adult books,” he says. Parents and grandparents, schools and others eager to promote reading, all create demand. “People want their kids to be educated.”

Rivers now has a designated “Children’s Corner” in the bookstore. It’s one example of the way the shape and size of the bookstore has changed over time.

Rivers, a retired Kodak marketing manager, runs the store with his wife Marie. She attends most of the book shows, he says, while he mans the fort most days. They started in 1994 in a 250-square-foot space but within the year moved into a larger space. Rivers built the store’s very first bookshelf himself.

The store grew from 250 square feet to 1,100 square feet to 2,500 square feet, featuring both books and art in different locations around the Village Gate Square. Currently down to about 1,600 square feet on the ground floor, the bookstore has built a loyal following, he says.

“I’m here to make money, but I do it because I like it as well,” he says. Rivers would not talk specifically about revenues, but he says selling books is not an easy business. “You have to put yourself in a position where you can expand and change at almost a moment’s notice.”

He’s also positioned the bookstore to serve as a community center for local writers, playwrights, actors and directors. Besides books, his other love is theater, and he has both written and directed many works.

Mood Makers Books sponsored the Sankofa Arts Festival for years, held in the courtyard of the Village Gate until 2005. Now Rivers is involved with the Sankofa Theater Festival, something he does as part of the Bronze Collective, of which he’s a founding member. The annual event, which played to sell-out crowds last year, features the work of local playwrights and musicians.

Mood Makers Books also launched the MMB Theatre 1 Project to help develop new plays and local playwrights, while also providing training to aspiring actors and directors.

“We’re a resource, but it also brings people into the store,” he says.

He even invites church groups to use his space for some of their meetings. This may be good for the community, but it’s also good for the bottom line, he says. “They come in; they walk around; they buy things.”

This is what it takes to run a bookstore in this day and age. He fills orders online, mailing books to customers who request them. “That end of the business has gone up,” he notes.

“But still, 60 percent of our revenue comes from books that people buy here,” he says.

Small Business is a biweekly feature focusing on entrepreneurs. Send suggestions for Small Business stories to Associate Editor Lisa Granite at lgranite@rbj.net.

1/13/2017 (c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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