Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe: 360 Degrees of Humanity

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When Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe in New York City turned five years old last month, the owners and staff of the Harlem cultural landmark were busy doing what they always do: finding creative ways to meet the reading needs of one of the nation's best known and largest African-American communities.

Crowd outside Hue-Man for former President Bill Clinton.

Since its beginnings in August 2002, Hue-Man has developed a roster of community projects and collaborations with other organizations that could fill one of the books in the airy, 4,000-square-foot store. Scores of African-American celebrities, from film, music, literature, fashion, and sports, have made Hue-Man a stop on press tours and events. The store's opening party was attended by singer Stevie Wonder, actor Wesley Snipes, rapper Jay-Z, and poet Maya Angelou. A visit by former President Bill Clinton on his 2004 tour for My Life (Random House) drew a jubilant crowd of more than 2,000 supporters and attracted news organizations around the world, said Marva Allen, the store's managing partner.

"This community really loves Bill Clinton," Allen said of the former president, who occupies offices in the neighborhood and frequently appears at Harlem events.

Allen, a successful entrepreneur, business owner, and author, and legendary entertainer Melvin Van Peebles joined founding partners Rita Ewing and Celeste Johnson in the business in 2004. A third founder, Clara Villarosa, left Hue-Man in 2003.

Two of Hue-Man's co-owners, Rita Ewing (left) and Marva Allen, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Van Peebles exemplifies the type of involvement that Hue-Man fosters within its diverse community. Through the program "Books for Kids," Van Peebles' foundation offers store gift certificates to entire primary grades at local Public School 123 several times a year.

Allen explained, "The first year, it was for the kids in kindergarten. Each year, he adds a grade. This year it's for grades one, two, and three. For a lot of these kids, it's the first book they've ever owned."

Another act of biblio-generosity was announced by Hue-Man in June. Author Walter Dean Myers is providing a literary scholarship for one elementary school student in the form of 12 $50 Hue-Man gift certificates per year.

Community events and collaborations abound at Hue-Man. A recent collaboration with Universal Studios led to an invitation only, mid-town screening of the feature film, Talk to Me, for Hue-Man customers, as "a fifth anniversary present to our customers," Allen told BTW.

Last week, in conjunction with Fashion Week, Sudanese supermodel and author Alek Wek appeared at the store to sign copies of her memoir, Alek (Amistad), which chronicles her harrowing escape to London from war-torn southern Sudan.

Alek is featured as the September Hudson News' Hue-Man Book of the Month. In an arrangement rolled out last January, Hudson News designates shelf space and signage to a selection of books under the Hue-Man brand in about 100 of its airport stores. Hue-Man also works with Hudson on events and signings in the stores, Allen said.

Through all of its collaborative efforts and programs, Hue-Man seeks to provide African-American readers with a wide range of literary possibilities and styles. That includes Pulitzer Prize winning works, academic treatises, and the bestselling and frequently explicit "street lit."

"We carry [street lit] because many of our customers want it," said Allen, who noted that the store can't meet the expectations of readers without offering works in all genres.

In an effort to "bring books to the people," Allen said, the store is hosting a large hip hop party to celebrate the publication of Still Hood by K'Wan (St. Martin's) in the Hip Hop Cultural Center, located above Hue-Man in the Harlem USA Mall.

As Harlem has continued to gentrify and revitalize, Allen has seen the customer base broaden from the "core Harlem-ites," to include more middle-class and professional African-Americans. Groups such as the National Black MBA Association, Spelman College students, and the Columbia University Jump Start Program, have held frequent meetings or functions at the store.

Discussion groups, open mike-nights, singles nights, weekend jazz, all take place in Hue-Man's 800-square-foot cafe, now operated by Cafe One.

With a schedule as complicated as Hue-Man's, Allen appreciates the usefulness of the store's website to publicize events, announce initiatives, and post notices of the store's many appearances in the media. "It definitely makes our lives easier," she noted.

Allen was very pleased to find Margaret Cezair-Thompson's The Pirate's Daughter (Unbridled) the number-one October Book Sense Pick. With its Jamaican setting and author, the book fits well into the store's niche of literature of the black diaspora. "Not all of the [Book Sense] bestsellers are relevant to our customers," Allen added.

Allen acknowledged that Hue-Man is "an independent bookstore, with all of independent bookstore woes. We won't get rich doing this." But, she said, she and her partners, and the eight staff people in the store, are becoming richer in spirit as they help the store grow. "If I had a dollar for every person who comes in and thanks me for what we're doing -- I would be rich," she concluded. --Nomi Schwartz