Struggling booksellers hope for storybook ending

By Jason Blevins

The Denver Post

DENVER -- Denver's distinguished Hue-Man Experience Bookstore, one of the largest African-American bookstores in the country, is in trouble.

Like so many niche bookstores across the country, behind on bills and struggling as an independent in a guarded economy, the Curtis Park mainstay is facing financial hurdles that might end its nearly 20-year run as the Mile High City's premier African-American cultural center.

"It saddens me. That was my baby," says the charismatic Clara Villarosa, who opened the Hue-Man Experience in 1984 with a few dollars and a dream.


Villarosa sold Hue-Man in 2000 to a trio of youthful entrepreneurs eager to carry her vision forward. Today, that trio has been reduced to one. And owner Joi Afzal is fighting for the survival of a legacy.

She's not alone.

Combine the prevalence of book sales via the Internet, deeply discounted books available at such stores as Wal-Mart and Target, and the growing presence of chain bookstores such as Barnes &; Noble and Borders, and today's independent bookstores are in a fight for their life.

Independent book selling has never been an easy gig. For years, the "indies" have been stalwart holdouts of an age when Main Street shops thrived and no one had ever heard of a supercenter. In 1991, independent bookstores commanded 32 percent of the now $23 billion book industry in this country. Today, the indie share has been reduced by more than half, hovering at 16 percent for the past two years, while chain-store sales have dropped slightly, according to trade journal Publisher's Weekly.

"This is not a traditional business. If this was a restaurant or something, I would have no qualms about saying 'Nope. This is not working,' and shut it down," Afzal, 32, says. "But this is too important. This is a place we can't afford to lose."

Joyce Meskis, owner of Denver's Tattered Cover bookstores, has ridden years of economic ebbs and flows to create two of the nation's largest independent bookstores.

"The pressure of the competition coming in was not inconsequential," Meskis says. "This is not an easy business even in the best of times. But independents have been on the roller coaster before, and they have rallied. Sure, there has been fallout along the way. That's business. When you get into a business with margins as thin as they are in the book business, it's really hard to gather the resources needed to sustain that rally."

Catering to specific clientele, such as the Afro-centric Hue-Man or the Latino-centric Cultural Legacy Books in the Highlands neighborhood of Denver, adds to the struggle.


"The biggest hurdle the Hue-Man bookstore faces is that we don't have a cohesive black community in Denver. And really, that's good news because Denver is not a segregated city," says Joan Winn, a professor at Daniels Business College at the University of Denver, who has studied Hue-Man for years.

Loyalty is the buzzword for any independent business in today's noncorporate business world. For indie bookstores, it's not just about enticing visitors away from the big stores and their Starbucks coffee and vast selection, but convincing them a trip to the bookstore beats a trip to the library.

When the Borders and Barnes &; Noble bookstores opened in the late 1990s, the niche stores were sure they would survive simply because they were niche and they had loyal customers. They knew they could offer those treasured books that wouldn't find their way into a corporate warehouse.

"I have a pulse as to what people are interested in; it's just that I don't have the capital to support it," Afzal says. "It's going to take a big financial push to turn this around."

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