Founder Bro. Yao Glover
Ella: Bro. Yao welcome! It is such a pleasure to have you with us today! It was such a rewarding experience working for Karibu Books! The closing of Karibu sadden a entire community. Today I would like to talk about the mission behind starting Karibu Books and what Karibu really meant to you. For those new to the literary scene, you can give them a glimpse inside the world of a business owner and community leader.
Ella: Now that Karibu is gone, what are you doing within the community? Are you still networking in the literary world? Are you still writing poetry?
Yao: Currently, my interest are still in promoting African American Literature of the Diaspora. At Bowie State University , I get a chance to interact with young people primarily from Washington, D.C. , Baltimore and Prince George's County, Maryland. In terms of basic reading and writing the core skills are often lacking, however, in terms of communication I get the chance to learn. On the poetry side, I am constantly reading, studying and when I get the chance performing.
Lastly, on the business side, I am working on a new project. The greatest obstacle to that project is the debt from Karibu which was primarily absorbed by my wife and I. In summary, I like to think of myself as a resource for Bowie State and the Community at Large in respect to writing, selling and promoting reading and books in our community.
Ella: Did Karibu Bookstores change the way consumers were previously taught to think? This is one of my favorite quotes in relation to business. Did Karibu create a new system?
"It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new one." - Nicolo Machiavelli
Yao: Karibu was a product of a series of forces. Only one of them was the actual will and force of the owners. The others were the market conditions: the change in the literary landscape of the 1990’s, the blessing of being born into the Washington Metropolitan Area and deciding to build a Black Bookstore here.
The rise of the Black Woman Writer (Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker as example), the Black Inspiration Book (Acts of Faith, Black Pearls), the relationship book, (Michael Baisden), the expansion of African American LGTB writing, Black Romance, Erotica and Urban Literature all worked to Karibu’s advantage. I think the next move after Karibu will be a new system. In fact, Karibu’s destruction was a by product of the quest to create a new system. Internally, we were not strong enough to complete the transition in that model. More than anything Karibu existed because of its ability to utilize the force of current trends and the way people thought about Black Books during its lifetime.
Ella: What are 3 things all leaders possess?
Yao: I’ll take this from the Tao-humility, love and frugality.
Ella: How did you get your start in the world of book selling? Karibu books and the staff encouraged black authors to live their dreams, hosted roundtable discussions, poetry readings and visits from noted authors across the country like T.D Jakes, Tavis Smiley, Maya Angelou, Walter Mosley and Terry McMillan. Karibu was a cultural force, to say the least.
Yao: My wife and I began vending as a way to provide for our family. I had no formal business training. I received the basics of business through my interaction with my partner. I am trained in Literature and writing which are essential skills in running a book store and actually valuing the books. (Pic: Yao and Simba Sana back in the day at Karibu)
Ella: What is your biggest challenge in handling business at Karibu? How did you overcome it?
Yao: A business is a small world created by the owner. The most challenging aspect of the business was considering all of the various areas of detail. Business owners are forced to deal with both the physical reality of the business and the conceptual reality. The list is almost endless, down to the font on signs, paper towels in the bathroom, mission, vision statement, HR procedure and the like.
For Karibu the level of detail increased dramatically because we had 6 locations. As a number this demanded infra-structure that related to the training and day to day management of employees that in the initial stages of the business were handled through day to day interaction with the owners in the business. We dealt with the challenge through relentless dedication to development and detail along with operations. In the wake of the death of Karibu, I am excited about doing more of that development before the actual business launches. The advantage of business plans and development is they allow one to visualize a business and its processes as a complete unit before the company begins.
Ella: What did you hope to offer your clients or customers to shape their lives? Karibu was the largest Afrocentric bookstore chain in the United States at one point. Karibu's slogan branded the store as ‘‘books by and about African people, 365 days a year.”
Yao: The Book business and writing are fundamentally about content. Though content is capable of changing consciousness, it is never guaranteed. There are the skills of the business person and the skills of the reader. Though we can deliver the book, there is no guarantee the message will be received or internalized as we might like. This places emphasis on other efforts outside of selling books, such as literacy and a rethinking of the role of books and education in our community.
The distribution of resources is simply one step in the goal to transform consciousness via the written word. It is our hope that the distribution of African American Literature through Karibu was a catalyst and gate that will lead to a more serious grassroots dialogue about ideas and their importance in building and shaping new social structures for African American people in specific and Americans as a whole.
Ella: Can your mission or vision truly keep a business growing?
Yao: With the Internet and the technological changes that are occurring in the marketplace we are challenged with considering different delivery systems for African American content that are outside of the book. Blogs, Facebook and the like give us other areas to explore, in order to expand the vision.
Ella: Tell us about the people you helped in the 15 years Karibu was leading the community. How was your company impacting the public? What social issues or causes did you address? It was clear at the Black Books Coalition Launch party the community still respects you.
Yao: When people ask about the social impact of Karibu there are a few approaches. On one level there is the larger narrative of the history itself of Karibu as the cultural institution and the rich history of Malcolm, Marcus, Ella Baker, Harriet Tubman and others whose literature and stories we sold, promoted and distributed. However, beneath this narrative there is the story of the customers, employees, vendors and folks in the mall who may have never purchased books. All of these groups were a part of the Karibu phenomena. (Pic: Tribute to Yao given by Lee McDonald of the The Renaissance Group, LLC)
Yao: There is one member of our customer and support base I used to refer to as an angel or oracle. This man had been hit by a car outside of a club in MD many years ago. On some days when perhaps he wasn’t feeling that well he would pull up his pants leg and show you the scar. The scar was about a foot long beginning above his knee and then stretching down the front of his leg to his shin. Much of his flesh was gone. As a result of the accident he walked with a permanent limp. His accident had also left him with a head injury and a whole host of medical issues he was forced to carry for the rest of his life.
This customer was more than a customer-he would come through Landover Mall almost everyday even when we had our cart in the middle of the mall, watching our cart for us when we went to grab some food or needed to use the bathroom. Yet, he also purchased books from us. I can still hear and employee telling me when I entered the store at P.G. or Landover that he had called me while I was out or had stopped by to see where I was at. If by chance I ran into him he would often stop me and talk for long periods of time. I can hear his voice now saying, “ Bro. Yao- you are a good man-folks don’t understand what you are doing for the community-what Karibu is doing for the community.” He would call sometimes and read me quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr’s work.
Yet, some of what he was giving us back was a portion of what Karibu had already put out into the universe. On the days I felt too busy to deal with him, I would often imagine our interaction was a meditative act. I was learning about the power of our impact from him. The feeling that we were too busy to deal with him, was simply not just a sign of our current mode but a sign of our relationship with the common denominator in our community.
Yao: In the Karibu history Landover Mall was a perfect example of that common denominator. Landover Mall was located across the street from a housing complex where in the heyday of the D.C. crack years, numerous murders had been committed and open air drug markets had been conducted. It was in the 80’s we would go to Landover Mall to see dudes with Gold Chains on their neck that were large enough to hold back Pit Bulls. The women would be there with their name spelled out in a giant hoop earrings as round as the bottom of a forty-ounce bottle. And after the murders and the reputation, Landover Mall never recovered. Folks would go there only when they had too. There were numerous vacancies. Landover was an old idea from another time.
In many ways as a corporate concept it was a minor casualty to be added to the crack years in the Washington Metropolitan Area. What is most important is that Landover though located in the Prince George’s County Suburbs was a version of the hood. By definition, the location of a Black Book Store in this portion of the community was similar to shining a bat symbol in the sky. And even if you didn’t shop at Karibu-you knew that it was that Black Bookstore in the middle of the mall.
Definition by mere presence-existence-perhaps as a correlative to someone who remembers walking black folks with picket signs many years ago and then being forced to read it in a history book. You remember and where a part of it, but where not really a part of it. Karibu affected countless folks who came through Landover Mall in this way.
Yao: While working at Landover Mall within the actual Mall I saw prostitutes, people who were mentally insane and permanent fixture. There was the man who mumbled through the mall everyday chanting to himself. The young brother with a butcher knife in plain view. The fights in the Baker’s shoe stores. The cluster of older men congregated outside the store talking about J.A. Roger’s and Chancellor Williams. The young ladies with their two sort skirts and too tight jeans picking up a copy of Flyy Girl. There was also an older woman in her 80’s who I wish I had a picture of who would walk through the mall hustling folks for dollars. I wish I had a picture because I can still see her in my mind with a Karibu T-Shirt on and a handful of plastic bags. As a fade away, Darren Coleman walking through door telling me he is going to write a book, and asking me would I sell it when he finished.
Ella: Yao you are a legend in your own time! At the Black Books Coalition launch party, as you spoke, you could feel the love and admiration from the DC literary elite as well as those new authors and community leaders coming along now. Please stay in contact with us! EDC Creations exists because of the Karibu support and connections. I will be eternally grateful for all you, Simba Sana and Karibu Books offered me. Lee McDonald, Carolyn Reed and Sunny Sana were also instrumental in helping me to grow into the president of EDC Creations. After you hired me as a buyer's assistant for Karibu Books, my position and responsibilities continued to change and grow along with my knowledge of the literary world. Ultimately causing my life to be forever changed. I want to do whatever possible to support you and your wife in any future endeavors. Thank you for being a thought leader and a literary legend for 15 years in business and beyond!