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Celebrating Black Bookstores: Pt Three

Black bookstores are a vital part of the African American community. They provide a space for black authors and readers to come together and celebrate their culture. Black bookstores also promote literacy and education within the African American community.


Black bookstores first began to appear in the early 20th century, in cities like New York and Washington D.C. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of black bookstores, as more and more people seek out spaces that reflect their cultures and experiences.


For the next six weeks, Intellectual Ink Magazine will feature black bookstores across the country and abroad. Today we honor Kareemah’s Urban Books


From bookworm to a brilliant butterfly interview with

Kareemah Mathis-Gee of Kareemah’s Urban Books


BY HAIKEEM STOKES

A still chill is upon us in the City of Brotherly Love, but we are yet in motion. The rapture of winter makes a triumphant return after being absent for many seasons. We’ve been spoiled by warm winter temperatures for the longest while, but now, the “Old Man” is back with a vengeance. Just as well, because the beginning of every year should bring about positive change and an abundance of prosperity. Maybe with this season back to pseudo-normal, so shall everything else. With a slight bite in the air, I head over to one of Philadelphia’s most beloved treasures, Kareemah’s Urban Books located at 2200 South 22nd Street, nestled in South Philadelphia. This area is quaint, very transient, and thankfully has adequate parking. Entering the establishment your eyes are dazzled by her wide array of books, varying in titles, situated wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling inside creatively structured bookcases. This bookstore is very well lit, extremely clean, and has a comfortable homely feel to it just right for reviewing the literature. After we exchange greetings, we sit down at a table in her boutique area where her assistant serves us green tea with honey, then I begin the interview.


Were you an avid reader throughout your childhood?


Indeed, I was. I shower my grandmother with praises because she is the reason that I acquired a serious love for reading. Oddly enough, she began my journey with the romance novels located in the checkout aisle of our local supermarket. Once she saw that I developed a passion for reading, she introduced me to more educational literature, such as personal memoirs and biographies. Eventually, my grandmother and I became regulars at our local library, and I was off to the races reading as many books as I was allowed to check out at once. The librarians were surprised at how quickly I replenished my book stock. I was so hooked on books that the librarians referred to me as their little book-a-holic. I’ve always been fascinated by how an intriguing book could transport your mind beyond your walls.


What inspired you to open a bookstore?


To be honest, reading was my healthy obsession. After so many years of constantly rotating books from the library, I eventually began going to local bookstores to purchase my favorite authors; to have them in my collection. After accumulating a vast amount of literature throughout my teens and early 20s, many of my friends would ask me to borrow books. This led to them paying me for non-returned books. By my mid 20’s, I ran out of room for my collection and decided to have a one-day book sale. I had so many books the sale extended an entire week. It pained me to get rid of those titles but seeing the look on the faces of those who made purchases was priceless. After so many requests to have another sale, I rented a trailer to park in front of my house, it was filled on either side with books and this began the book sale.


My customers frequently requested books that I didn’t have in stock, and I thought it was crucial to provide the community with what they wanted. As fate would have it, there was a property that became available in my neighborhood that seemed perfect for a bookstore. Nine years later the Creator has fortunately continued to sustain me in this dwelling. I love everyone in this area and my patrons appreciate me as well.


Do you primarily feature a particular genre in your store?


No, I don’t. I thought it was more important to give my readers options rather than only expose them to one perspective. I believe that the shop reflects the diversity of the neighborhood, therefore, I feature everything from fiction to non-fiction, children’s literature, religious literature, history, romance, suspense thrillers, and how-to books. More than likely, I will have whatever you may be searching for, but if by chance I don’t, customers are welcome to order it from me. I want my selection to be limitless in order to satisfy the consumer.


What other passions do you have?


Early in my employment career, I dabbled in catering. I love to cook, so that’s what kept my interest for several years, but I realized that I only wanted to do that for my family. Due to my grandmother’s gentle persuasion, I learned to crochet, knit, and sew very well. After years of simply doing it as a hobby, I began knitting outerwear, such as skull caps, scarves, and headbands that serve as earmuffs. Before long I received a mass amount of requests for different sets and then that soon grew into a small business prior to the book venture. Nowadays, I strictly sell skull caps in my bookstore because thankfully I don’t have time to produce anything else. Daily, there is a steady flow of customers that keep me very busy and for this, I’m truly grateful.


Do you plan to open an additional bookstore?


Not in the near future. I will definitely have to see how everything goes before focusing on another location. Due to the high volume of my current store and the great demand for additional titles I was forced to renovate in an effort to accommodate the steady flow of customers. It was a willing sacrifice so that everyone would be comfortable. I also acquired a small bus that serves as a bookmobile to coincide with the bookstore. Before this current state of being {COVID}, I would visit area elementary schools during their recess and allowed the children to browse the books for purchase. It was a great collaborative effort between myself and the principal of each school at the time; something I’m hoping to get back to. It is truly a blessing to see the look in a child’s eyes as they are absorbing knowledge. This is why I believe there will always be a need for bookstores. Many people still want to feel the book in their hands and admire it up close. They also love to smell the pages as they physically turn them. It is just something about a book in your hand that makes the experience more real. Not just for children, but for everyone.


What advice would you give a young female entrepreneur?


If there is a product that you strongly believe in, or if you possibly have a creation or interest that you truly believe in, please pursue your dream. No one will believe in you if at first you never believe in yourself. You must have a strong will and relentless desire to own your own anything, so don’t listen to the public you must follow your heart. Continuously push until you break through and never stop.


Please support Kareemah’s Urban Books 2200 S 22nd St, Philadelphia, PA 19145

Home | Kareemah's Urban Books (kareemahsurbanbooks.com)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY INTELLECTUAL INK 02/22