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One shrewd online bookseller, a constellation of smaller sites: a black-owned Internet bookseller thrives by broadening its product lines.

When I wrote my first book in 1996, a friend told me about what was probably the first online bookseller, Amazon.com. It was a marvel. I logged on often to check out the sales of my books, as well as the comments made by people who bought it. I even started buying books online because of it. Soon after that, a number of "brick and mortar bookstores" took their wares online, but it has proven to be a tough business.

As Internet businesses began to falter around 2001, so did some online book retailers. with more interest in African American authors, black booksellers also tried selling over the Internet (see Black Issues Book Review, March-April 1999), but most found that they had more competition from mainstream bookstores online and off. When online booksellers cut their prices, many African American online stores were notable to follow suit. Today, CushCity.com, which started in 1998, is perhaps the only black book retailer that sells exclusively online. It has branched out, however, into other products to broaden its sales. Meanwhile, a greater number of brick-and-mortar stores and self published authors have found the Web an effective marketing tool.

Since the late '90s, several African American online stores have dosed while others simply link to larger online booksellers such as Amazon.com or BarnesandNoble.com to provide book sales. Even so, a few African America booksellers ate still using the Web to provide a component of their overall sales. African American Literature Book Club: AALBC.com started in 1997 as an online book club and meeting place for people to chat about black books, and it offers book purchases through Amazon.com. "Online selling provides a service but is not the core of the business," says sales manager Earl Cox. The site focuses on the literary aspect of publishing with author profiles, book profiles and online book club listings, www.aalbc.com; 866-603-8394; earl@earlcox.com

Africanbookstore.net: Started in 1992, African Bookstore provides online book sales for its customers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It features historical and children's books of the African Diaspora. www.africanbookstore.net; 3600 W Broward Blvd.; Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312 1014; 954-584-0460

Black Images Book Bazaar: Though the bookstore has offered books online since 2001, its Web site is primarily a marketing tool that lists in-store as well as community events. The Web site offers a monthly bestsellers' list, self-published author profiles, as wen as spotlights of self-published authors. http://www.blackimages.com; 230 Wynnewood Village, Dallas, TX, 75224; 214-943-0142

Bookladder.com: This two-year-old Web site, based in Nyack, New York, specializes in books for African American children from kindergarten through 12th grade. The site promotes local bookstores in a Bookstore of the Month feature. Owner Vernon Hamilton says that the site is currently being redesigned. In addition, he is entering in an agreement with distributor Ingram Book Group to offer a more complete selection of books. www.bookladder.com; 22 College Avenue; Nyack, NY 10960; telephone: 845-727-7720

Cushcity.com: Gwen Richardson, cofounder and Web site manager, says the had to make some significant changes to stay competitive. One change has been the opening of a retail store, primarily to handle walk-in traffic in Houston, Texas, where the company is located. "People in our area wanted to be able to come right in" she says.

Her strategy for selling books online? Sell what Wal-Mart does not. "The book business is tough," she says, "especially now that main stream booksellers have discovered the black book buyers. The competition eats into your business." Stocking popular authors means you have to compete with the mainstream stores, and it's sometimes a losing battle because small stores lose customers to bigger, better-stocked stores with perceived better service. She says online discounting also eats into the profit margin. Black consumers may choose convenience and price over store loyalty, and Richardson says it is hard for a store to focus solely on black books and thrive. "What has helped us survive from the first six months" she says, "has been listening to our customers." As a result, movies on DVDs and videos are "our bread and butter now."

Cushcity.com no longer focuses on stocking well-known authors. Instead, it concentrates on obscure, up and-coming or self-published authors whose works are not widely available or whose work does not have wide appeal. Even so, Richardson says Cushcity.com's product line is so broad, "we can sell something to anybody black." www.Cushcity.com; 13559 Bammel N. Houston Rd.; Houston, TX 77066; 800-340-5454

Karibu Books: Considered one of the nation's largest black-owned bookstore chains, this 11-year-old store offers online sales and stocks core books essential to any black book collection. It has a jam packed calendar of author signings as well as a monthly bestseller list. www.karibubooks.com; Prince George's Plaza; 3500 East West Highway, Hyattsville, MD; 301-559-1140

Mosaic Books: Redesigned last year, this site was started in 1996 and bills itself as the first Web site dedicated to African American books and literature. Ron Kavanaugh, its creator/founder, says, "I started it out of a love a literature." It is primarily a showcase for black literature, not a retail site. Kavanaugh offers books for sale by linking to Amazon.com. In fact, Kavanaugh used to list books for free until 2000. Now he charges authors a variety of fees to be listed depending on the service he provides for them. The biggest change since he started is the number of authors who have their own Web sites. He says some authors who build their own sites and list their books on Mosaic.com still ask to be linked back to their personal site. http://www.mosaicbooks.com; 314 W. 231 St. #470; Bronx, NY 10463; telephone 718-530-91321; Fax: 718-504 9600

Ingrid Sturgis released her latest book, Aunties: 35 Writers Celebrate Their Other Mother (Ballantine Books, April 2004).
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Title Annotation:bookbytes
Author:Sturgis, Ingrid
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
Words:982
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