Book Lovers Fight to Keep Store Open

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Independent Apple Book Center Struggles for a New Lease on Life

Sherry McGee may be in her last days as an independent bookseller. After signing yet another loan, dumping her 401(K) fund into her beloved Apple Book Center, and facing debts totaling $300,000, she told her staff in late February that she would close the doors this month.

What happened next was a surprise to the former staffing company executive who has a passion for literature. Customers begged her not to close, and they started fighting for the store's survival, mounting a "Save Apple Book Center" campaign.

"It is actually catching on," McGee said. "It's the most wonderful thing."

McGee blames last year's economic recession for causing the store's problems. "For a company that already has no cash cushion, we just got wiped out after Sept. 11," said McGee. "We're just completely out of gas and out of cash."

Sherry McGee

In the six years since Apple Book Center opened, McGee was featured in such magazines as Ebony and Emerge as a successful African-American entrepreneur. Her store became an institution, attracting a string of prominent authors for book signings and reading groups for all ages. In 1999, McGee was selected as the Blackboard Bookseller of the Year. But all along, McGee was battling a nationwide trend of large chain bookstores, such as Barnes & Noble and Borders, that are squeezing out small independent owners.

When longtime customer Sherry Gay-Dagnogo learned McGee planned to close the bookstore, she was brought to tears. "I just said, no, that can't happen," said Gay-Dagnogo, a full-time student pursuing an education degree. "It's a very nice place, a very professional, family-oriented business. It broke my heart to think we can possibly lose it."

Gay-Dagnogo and Thea Todd White, a former social worker, called McGee to convince her community support could help her save the store. "She basically said, 'That's nice that you don't want it to close, but, sweetheart, here are the facts,' " Gay-Dagnogo recalled with a laugh.

McGee admits she initially doubted the women could do anything to help, but by the end of the conversation, she realized she had nothing to lose.

McGee doesn't pretend it will be an easy haul. She estimates she needs to cover at least half of her debt to get the store back on its feet. But she postponed her planned closing date of March 8.

The store has started selling memberships to give loyal customers store discounts: a 10-percent discount for donations of $20 to $100 and 20 percent for donations of $101 or more. They also convened a community meeting to brainstorm other ways to help save the store and formed a committee called Friends of Apple Book Center.

"It's important to me because I live in this community," Gay-Dagnogo said. "As an African-American woman, I identify with Sherry. I'm proud of her as someone who believes wholeheartedly in education and literacy. I have held her and her business in such high esteem."

People like Marian Brakefield are flocking into the store. Apple Book Center was a favorite haunt for the Detroiter and her granddaughter Amber. The five-year-old loves to curl up on a bean bag chair in a far corner to read her favorite books. "This would be a tremendous loss," said the middle school teacher, who left the store recently with a handful of "Save Apple Book Center" fliers. "I'm here at least once a week. It's nice and always clean and peaceful, and everyone is friendly."

Apple Book Center was a prime location for authors visiting Detroit on book tours. Bestselling authors E. Lynn Harris, Iyanla Vanzant, Tavis Smiley, Eric Jerome Dickey, and even Patti LaBelle frequented the store. "It would be a tragedy for this bookstore ... to have to close its doors," said Tavis Smiley, a book author, syndicated radio columnist, and television correspondent. "I trust that the people of Detroit who have benefited from Apple Book Center will do anything and everything to keep the doors open."

And they are. Jason Dixon stopped by in early March to drop off a $100 donation. The insurance adjuster has been a customer nearly four years. In fact, a finance book from Apple persuaded him to start buying properties to become a landlord. "They say young black males don't read," said Dixon, who belongs to a book club. "I've been coming here since I was 23. I'm going to do whatever I can to help."

Artist Galen Pauling was in disbelief upon hearing news of the store's closing. McGee was the first bookstore owner to sell the Q.T.Pie children's book series Pauling illustrated and his wife, Stephanie Sanders-Pauling, wrote. "I'm shocked -- my stomach is turning, actually," Pauling said. "This is one of the best bookstores in the area."

Even 15-year-old DeAngelo Crite insists the store should stay open. "They have nice books," said the teen-ager who walks to the strip mall at Southfield and Outer Drive most days after school. "I like the black history books. We can't let them close it. I'd miss the nice people who work in here."

He means people like Martina Burnley, general manager of the store for four years, who is one of nine full- and part-time employees whose jobs are at risk. "I'm distraught as an employee and as a book buyer," said Burnley, who hasn't been able to sleep well since McGee gave her the news. "We're unsure what's going to happen."

From the beginning, McGee realized being an independent book store owner in a era of chain stores was its own challenge. "When we did our research, we knew about the margins in this business, and we knew about chain stores and things like," McGee said. "We had a stellar record the first five years we were open."

McGee adjusted opening hours at the store and lowered her inventory when she realized 2001 sales were sluggish, but couldn't pull out of the slump. Many small businesses struggled after September 11, said Karl Pohrt, owner of Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and an ABA Director. "For individually owned businesses, it's increasingly hard to make a go of it in the United States," said Pohrt, who knows and admires McGee. "It's very interesting, and I think a sign of how vital and important she is to that community that people are coming forward to say they want to help her survive."

About 35 creditors are asking for payment. A few have agreed to work with McGee, who originally planned to close the store and refocus on her work as an author. "Today, I'm saying the community is not going to let it close," McGee said. "I believe we are going to save Apple Books."

Kim Trent, a public relations executive in Detroit, is another concerned customer who joined Friends of Apple Book Center, a committee of six trying to save the store. "It's about this community sending a message that we value reading, we value black-owned businesses, and we know how to come together when the stakes are high," said Trent. "Sherry put her heart and soul into this business, and the community responded. It would be a real shame not to fight for it." -- Kara G. Morrison

Reprinted with permission from The Detroit News