A Black-owned Charlotte bookstore reopens — on wheels
A Black-owned bookstore that closed earlier this year has reopened with what its owner hopes is a more sustainable business model, trading a shopping center for a steering wheel.
One recent Saturday, people stopped at tables where vendors sell flowers, candles and fresh fruit at a farmers market at Providence Baptist Church near South Park. Among the vendors, a white school bus with Bookmobile painted on the front sat in the parking lot. Inside, owner Sonyah Spencer opened boxes of books.
Before buying the bookmobile, Spencer sold books in her shop, The Urban Reader Bookstore, in Charlotte's University City neighborhood. But she says the location eventually became unfeasible, and was too costly to keep open.
“Business owners need to adjust according to the economic times,” Spencer said. “For me, it wasn’t financially right for the amount of rent I was paying at the brick-and-mortar location."
Spencer said she was paying about $6,000 monthly to lease the space.
“I was going red every month,” Spencer said. “It got to the point where the other business I do during the week, I was supplementing to keep the bookstore open.”
After her 18-month lease ended in February, Spencer bought the bookmobile. She says she’s now accessible to different communities. “I get it. If I lived in Pineville, where I used to live, would I drive all the way to the university to go to a bookstore? No, I wouldn’t,” Spencer said. So, I said, you know what, ‘let me go to the people, so the people don’t have to go to me.’”
Ashlyn Boyles, who lives in the neighborhood, checked out the bookmobile at the farmers market. She said seeing the mobile bookstore brought back fond memories.
“I remember whenever I was a kid, just being so excited seeing the bookmobile in my neighborhood,” Boyles said. “We were pretty far from the public libraries, so just seeing it and being able to go and get books as a kid, so seeing this one parked here today was so nostalgic.”
Boyles left the bus with a few new books. Spencer sells a range of books, including African American authors, children's literature, and a section for LGBTQ+ and Hispanics. She’s aware that many of those topics are controversial now, as efforts to remove books that deal with race and sexuality from school libraries continue around the region.
“I pray for the librarians, the school districts, and the community libraries because their road to getting a book on the shelf is harder for them than it is for me,” Spencer said.
Robert — who didn’t want to give his last name because of the sensitivity around the topic — said he is pleased that a resource like the bookmobile is available to the community. “We live in the United States of America, and freedom of speech is important,” Robert said. “The opportunity to choose, to read and to explore whatever we want is a good thing, so it’s great to see this out here.”
Spencer said changing a business plan can be an opportunity instead of a risk. She laughed to herself, now knowing she only has to fork out approximately $60 for gas now and then, about $100 for parking per month — and the occasional oil change.