When Vera Warren-Williams started the Community Book Center 40 years ago, she was a substitute teacher who wanted to address the lack of books by and about people of African descent in New Orleans’ public schools at the time. Since then the CBC has evolved into one of the city’s cultural institutions that has served the African-American community for four decades.
Williams, who grew up in the Lower 9th Ward, graduated from Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) in 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in social work. She became a substitute teacher and took Black-themed books to the schools and shared them with the students. Williams also realized that there was a yearning for Black books outside the classroom.
The entrepreneur placed her first book order on September 28, 1983, just eight days after her 24th birthday. The order was for 13 books, mostly children’s books, and “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker. Those first few years, Williams sold the books out of the trunk of her car and her parents’ home.
Today, the Community Book Center is located on Bayou Road alongside other Black businesses, including several restaurants, a record store and a performing arts center. Last month’s HomeFest on Bayou Road, presented by the Kinfolk Foundation, celebrated the CBC’s four decades in business.
Verite talked to Williams, 64, about the Community Book Center’s 40-year-journey from her parents’ home to Bayou Road.
Verite: Tell me about growing up in the Lower 9th Ward at that time.
Williams: Growing up in the Lower 9th Ward before integration or what was supposed to be desegregation, we provided everything that our community needed. We had H&W drug store, Edward’s shoe company. We had Coleman’s liquor store. We had a Ross Grocery store and restaurant. Daycare centers, churches, home-based businesses, dump truck companies, mechanics, all of these things were right there in our community.
So as a result of growing up in the 9th Ward and being educated in what at the time was the New Orleans public schools, which we went to community schools, there was no busing, just being able to walk through our community exposed me to the vast amount of entrepreneurs in my own community. And there were enough role models for me to say, “Well, if they could do it, I could do it too.” They were providing needs and goods and services to a community that we didn’t have to go outside of ourselves. We knew that when we supported each other and shopped with these people, that people that looked like us benefited from it, their families. Our communities were enriched because these were the businesses that supported youth activities, sports activities, all kinds of things. It went right back in the community that we came from. So we were a tight-knit community where everybody looked out for everybody. Everybody shared with one another. And it was just a group mostly of homeowners trying to make a way for their families.
Verite: How did you go from placing that first order of books from your parents’ home to a brick and mortar store? Tell me about that journey.
Williams: I think it’s important to understand that this whole process has been a journey. When I was operating out of my parents’ home, one of the things that became very apparent to me was that though I was very excited about being able to share this information, and the community also was excited about it, that it really posed a serious security risk because I’m inviting people into my home, strangers into my home.
I was given the opportunity by another female-owned home-based business, Denise Ballard, to put a rack in her business, which was right across the canal at 1421 Poland Ave. Her business was Greenery Everywhere, and it was a gift shop, a plant store, gifts, balloons and stuff like that. It was a nice little addition because if somebody wanted to add a book or whatever to their gift package, that was there. Then she gave me an opportunity to have a room adjacent to her business, and it was all in the basement of her home. I had a room with a separate entrance where people could come in and purchase, and then I was able to establish hours. And so that was our first home outside of the home.
And then in 1988, I saw a location on Ursulines Street, 1200 Ursulines Street in the heart of Treme after leaving an interview for a job at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. When I saw the building, I was like, “Oh, that would be a great place to have a bookstore.” The building was for sale, but I didn’t let that deter me. The owners were willing to enter into a lease agreement, so we moved to 1200 Ursulines. Technically that was our first real brick and mortar location where we were standalone. We stayed there until 1995. We moved from there to 17 North Broad, which is currently an empty lot diagonally across from where Whole Foods is, which was at that time Schwegmann’s Supermarket. We remained in that location until 2003 when we purchased this building and moved into it.
Verite: Think about the challenges that you faced over 40 years. What stands out the most?
Williams: I think part of the biggest challenges have been lack of resources. The store was started with $300 of my personal savings. We did not receive loans or grants or whatever that would aid in our growth and development. So basically everything that we’ve had, we’ve worked very hard for and sacrificed for it. I think also the challenges were because we were unique and the only bookstore of its kind that specialized in books by and about people of African descent. However, the whole notion was that everyone needed this information. I’m a firm believer that once we have correct information, it would help all of us to grow. And it would help to eliminate and debunk myths and stereotypes and to somewhat bridge gaps and divisions that don’t allow people to be their full selves.
Verite: How did the Community Book Center survive during COVID-19?
Williams: We were in a real rough situation during COVID. One, Black bookstores in general across the country were on a decline. They were struggling to survive and the pandemic was not helpful. And it was particularly hard for us because of our old school personal face-to-face nature. We didn’t have an online presence or online store. So when everything shut down and everyone went online, we were out of line. But when George Floyd was murdered and the world saw the brutality and the effects of racism, then everyone wanted to know more about the roots of racism. In addition, they wanted to feel like they were contributing or helping the cause, and they wanted to now intentionally support Black-owned businesses, particularly bookstores. And that was unfortunately our saving grace.
Verite: If you didn’t have an online presence, how did you navigate the pandemic protocols — masks, social distancing? People were mostly staying home.
Williams: We were able to reopen with masks and social distancing. And it wasn’t like people would come and just gather and hang out. It was like grab and go. And also during that time frame, because a lot of people were working remotely, we had several volunteers who came forward to help us develop a website where people could order, help us with our social media, and be able to promote stuff on social media. So all of those things developed, which aided in our ability to continue to survive.
Verite: Looking forward, you’ve been in existence for 40 years, what do you see next for the Community Book Center?
Williams: I think we want to continue to do programming for youth, family, and the community overall. I think that what I would like to see is a more global expansion, reaching beyond not only New Orleans or the United States, but throughout the diaspora — expanding to provide services, educational consulting, import, export opportunities, to other communities outside of the United States. And I think that that’s the next frontier because it’s important for me. I pray that little boys and little girls and even adults alike can walk through the doors of Community Book Center and understand that though our beginnings have been humble, we are still humbled by the fact that people still come in and support us and see what we have to offer as value.
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