Washtenaw United: Black Stone Bookstore Seeks To Unite Community Through Literature And Dialogue
The Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti has a mission: To unite all people, regardless of race, religion, or politics, and to highlight the works of authors of color. Bookstore co-owner Carlos Franklin joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss his love of literature and his journey as a Black, small business owner during social unrest and a pandemic.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
ABOUT CARLOS FRANKLIN:
Went to Willow Run High School. Birthday 10-24-1972. Started selling books out the trunk of my car. Married and have four children.
As the United Way of Washtenaw County is dedicated to achieving equity in our community, lifting the work of Black-owned businesses helps support this mission.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and I'm David Fair, and thanks for joining us for another edition of Washtenaw United. Today, we have the good fortune to explore the challenges and successes in finding equity for small black owned business and in the literary and publishing world. Our guest is Carlos Franklin. Carlos is the co-owner of Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti. And Carlos, thank you so much for making time for us today.
Carlos Franklin: And thank you for having me.
David Fair: How nice is it to be back open for in-person business and events at the bookstore?
Carlos Franklin: I think it's very nice. One of my biggest motivation is having the in-store. I know we have an online site that we launched right when March 22nd, 2020, and we have a lot of success with that. But it's nothing like getting in there and mingling with the customers.
David Fair: How significant an impact did the pandemic have on the store?
Carlos Franklin: It was kind of pluses and minuses. You know, like I said, the minus part is, you know, you can be in there with the customers and everybody was shut down and, you know, you having trouble with the mail and getting things out to people. And, you know, people were scared to work. But the pluses was, you know, it was something where people had to sit at home. So, you know, when people sit at home, they do a lot of reading.
David Fair: That is exactly right. Now, through the course of the pandemic, that was both concern and consternation among Black business owners, particularly small business owners, that COVID relief money was being distributed unfairly and left all too many out. Did you seek or receive that kind of support?
Carlos Franklin: No, I really didn't. I have a lot of support from my customer base and new customers, and so, I didn't really seek the money. A lot of people, you know, wonder why our acts, and I just felt that maybe would go best for somebody else. I've been in a business for a while, and honestly speaking, me and my partner, we was taking care of business out of our pockets. We, like, we got to pay the rent out of pocket anyway.
David Fair: And what that speaks to is you really have built a sense of community in which the community is supporting and sustaining itself.
Carlos Franklin: Yes. Yes. And then and that was it was important. When I opened up the business, I wanted to earn my way to success. And my main goal was just trying to build up the customer base during that time and, you know, letting customers know we're there for you. We can get the product out to you.
David Fair: You and your partner, Kip Johnson, began this adventure together back in 2013. How have the challenges and opportunities of being a Black small business owner evolved in the eight years you've been together?
Carlos Franklin: It's been pretty good. I used to sell books in gas stations, beauty salons, barbershops. He was more of a vendor type person going to different fairs and things of that nature where we actually did form a bookstore together. We just was doing different things under different names and umbrellas.
David Fair: Washtenaw United and our conversation with Carlos Franklin continues on Eighty-Nine one WEMU. Carlos is co-owner of the Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti. And, Carlos, you have said the mission of the business is to serve as a hub where the Ypsilanti community can come together to exchange ideas and to bring greater awareness of African-American literature and culture. How do you go about serving that mission at the store?
Carlos Franklin: As far as the hub pre-pandemic, you know, we used to do a lot of events. Gun buyback, given away things to kids and mothers-to-be. And we had musical events and poetry and things of that nature. So, it was just more of a spot where any person of background or ethnicity can come and just sit and partake in the things that we had going on. So that's where our way of being a hub, you know, is to come and do a little mind-wresting. And, you know, um...
David Fair: I love that term. "Mind-wrestling."
Carlos Franklin: Yeah. Yeah. I always say mind-wrestling because, you know, I think that's kind of what's missing. You know, there's no right. There's no wrong. This is your point. My point and let's wrestle. And just see what we come up with. And that's what I kind of enjoy, because just learning about each other. So we're open to anybody, any race, creed, religion or whatever, and speak your peace and let's see how we can make it make sense.
David Fair: And there may be no more important dialog than the kind of conversation you're talking about having. And I think it's fair to say, since the murder of George Floyd, there has been an increase in interest in Black authors and Black literature that extends beyond the Black community. Have you seen increased interest through the Black Stone online presence and now back in person that things are changing in the manner in which we have those conversations?
Carlos Franklin: Yeah, I have seen, you know, I don't want to be a business that's just built on the moment. I want to be a business where people come to you because you do good business and you have what they want. So with that being said, yes, I have seen an increase of people as interested in, you know, Black authors in Black books, but one of my thing is that don't just get caught up in the political part of the Black experience. Read some Black fiction, read some Black poetry. If you really want to know what the Black person, I think it gives some of these older books, like in the 60s and the 70s and the 80s, where they wasn't worth too much about the political correctness of things and just don't get caught up in just a political part of it or just the movement of what's going on right now. If you really want to learn culture and learn artistic advancement of Black people, then just go ahead and read some of those older books. And, you know, Richard Wright, Claude Brown and some of these and even some of the fiction, Donald Goines and Iceberg Slims.
David Fair: What you're pointing out is that Black authors, Black poets and Black creative minds have always been available to the public, but have been long underrepresented in the literary and publishing world, not because there aren't great numbers of writers and creatives, but because access has been willfully limited. Is this a period of time in which we exist now where there is opportunity to create greater change?
Carlos Franklin: Yes. You summed it all up. So, that's why they got you on that side and I'm on this side. But that is correct. Now, we have the opportunity where people can get their hands on it. And you have seen even some books doing the pandemic. Black authors have made a New York Times bestseller and things of that nature, which is good as all for the cause. But, like you say there's so much to us, and I just don't want a person to get the wrong idea of we just all political and everybody is crying for a seat at the table. You know, sometimes that's not what we are 100 percent of the time. We, you know, we do other things as well.
David Fair: So give me a personal experience. If I walk into Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center, what is my going to be my experience? What is my opportunity to engage beyond just buying a book?
Carlos Franklin: Well, you know, when you come in, you know, you're going to be greeted with, you know, either me or Kip or one of our workers. You're going to see different things we have in the store, we sell flags, African flags, African American flags, Black Lives Matter flags. We sell dashikis, we sell toothpaste and with no fluoride in safe water and different things like that. And every one of the most common words that I hear is, oh, I love the smell. We have incense. We have oils and candles and different things. So, that's what you're going to first experience. Your senses is going to be there. And then, you're going to be able to speak with someone that knows about the culture and and shared their insight of firsthand experience. We have a small store, so most of our books are online where you can get it shipped or you can have it shipped to the store with no shipping fee and just put in-store pickup and pick it up. So, those are some of the things that you would experience when you first come here.
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's Washtenaw United. Again, we're talking with the co-owner of the Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti. His name is Carlos Franklin. And, Carlos, this is obviously not a new passion for you. You're a Willow Run High School graduate. And well before partnering with Kip, as you mentioned, you were selling books out of the back of your car, gas stations, creating Pop-Up stores. Where did your passion for this come from?
Carlos Franklin: I always loved books. I read all the time, and I always tell the story about I had a third grade teacher that always fed that love to bought books and brought them in. And I just read from Judy Blume to, like I said to Claude Anderson. She's always who I loved. And so, one of the things that I used to do is when I read something I wanted to share it. I start sharing my books that I'm buying. And then I was like, man, you know, anybody that know about books, when you give them out, you never get them back, I got to figure out a way where I could still read the books that I like and share with the people that I want to read them. But I've not taken a loss. So I was "OK. Well, maybe I could just sell them." So that way, if they don't give them back, I'm not worried about it because I refute my losses.
David Fair: I believe, Carlos, you have four children. How are you sharing this passion with them and their circle of friends and how have you influencing the generation that comes behind you?
Carlos Franklin: One of the mistakes that I see, even when people come into the store, you know, when they want to take books for their children, you know, they have a child that's 12 years old and they grab in this big Malcolm X and I'm like, "Nah, let them pick what they want." And then once they get a love for it, then you kind of sneak that stuff in there. Finance books, you know, history books. It's not a fight or a struggle when I do it that way.
David Fair: So when your time at the store in the cultural center comes to an end, where would you like to leave it for those that are to follow?
Carlos Franklin: Really, I don't think of me having it end.
David Fair: You're in for the long run.
Carlos Franklin: That's right. As you move forward in the sense that you don't go anywhere because whoever come behind you, they kind of just pick up where you left off, and everything is kind of in the direction set forth. So, you know, I'm always that, you know, you don't make followers. You make leaders. And so that's how I look at it. And that's why I feel like I'm not trying to go nowhere. Even if it's not Black Stone Bookstore, even if it's not books, is going to always be something that's going to be tied in what is going to still be the movement. And the movement is not a Black thing. It's not a white thing. It's more of an educational thing.
David Fair: Well, I'd like to thank you for leading me through the conversation today and sharing your perspective. I do appreciate it, Carlos.
Carlos Franklin: And I appreciate you. And I thank you.
David Fair: That is Carlos Franklin, co-owner of the Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center in Ypsilanti, which you will find along Michigan Avenue, right across the street from the Ypsilanti District Library's downtown branch. For more information on the store, go to Black Stone Bookstore dot com, and visit our website. We'll have all the information you need at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.
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