Owner of Trailblazing Bookstore Chain Pulls the Plug

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Karibu Books was the nation's largest black-owned chain of bookstores, specializing in African-American oriented literature. But after 15 years in operation, the CEO decided to pull the plug on Karibu, to the surprise of many. Simba Sana says his own spiritual growth aided in his decision to close shop.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you live in the Washington, D.C., area and you love books, then you know the name Karibu. Karibu was a thriving retailer specializing in African-American-oriented works. It started as a series of kiosks in malls backed by $500 in venture capital.

A decade later, it had grown into the nation's largest black-owned book chain. But Karibu recently shut its doors after 15 years, leaving untold numbers of customers and authors to mourn the loss.

We wanted to learn from the experience of Karibu, how such a thriving business was built and lost, so we thought who better to impart some words of wisdom than Simba Sana, the CEO and a co-founder, who is here with me in the studio. I would normally say welcome, but today I'll say karibu, since it means welcome in Ki-Swahili.

Mr. SIMBA SANA (Co-Founder, Karibu Books): Yes, thank you, thank you. Thanks for having me on, Michel.

MARTIN: What made you choose that name?

Mr. SANA: Well, when we started vending in the streets of D.C. in late '92 or early '93, one of the issues we were concerned about was customer service, especially being a small business, small black business. So karibu, which is Ki-Swahili for welcome, comes from the concept of giving valuable service. So we took pride in making sure we would make the customer's experience enjoyable and convenient.

MARTIN: What made you want to have a bookstore or sell books, because initially, it wasn't a store. It was kiosks, as we said.

Mr. SANA: Yes, well Yao Hota(ph), who you know, became my business partner, he was vending oils, incense and inexpensive jewelry, and we both had a love for books. We were both members of a political kind of black nationalist organization called the African Development Organization, and he had this vending stand, and he invited me to join with him.

I was selling books on the side to - you know, just from time to time, making some side change. And he offered to allow me to sell my books on his stand, and so that's how the relationship, the business relationship began. And I left my job as an auditor at Ernst & Young, and we started selling a number of things, which I had mentioned, and eventually books became 80 to 90 percent of what we sold.

MARTIN: And were you surprised?

Mr. SANA: I wasn't surprised, but I didn't know that the demand would be as strong as it was. We loved books, and it just so happened that the customers kept demanding more books. So it was less oils, less incense, less inexpensive jewelry, and so the books became most of what we sold.

MARTIN: That's interesting. But, first of all, talk to me, though, about the experience of going from, you know, kiosks, first selling on the street to then to kiosks in malls, and then to six stores. That's a remarkable story, don't you think? I mean, by any standard, most small businesses fail, period, no matter who owns them. And to stay in business for five years for a small business is a remarkable thing, right?

Mr. SANA: Yes.

MARTIN: So first of all, how did you do it, and then what happened?

Mr. SANA: Well, it was an extreme amount of dedication on my part and also on my business partner, you know, and we just dedicated everything to Karibu, and I guess in hindsight, at the expense of our families, to some extent. So that was - you have to have the work ethic and the desire. What kept me going was the entrepreneurial seizures, that I loved what I was doing. I always thought positive, and so where I was at that time, in '93, in my mind was just a temporary state, and eventually that's what came to pass.

The company grew. We had more locations, and it took off. But initially, I only thought that - the dream was to have one store. I never thought it would end up being six stores.

MARTIN: African-American titles have just exploded in the last, say, decade or so, and I wonder when you started out, were you able to get the titles that you were interested in? I remember hearing Terry McMillan say that she had a hard time. Of course, who's a huge, you know, best-selling author now - that was selling books out of the trunk of her car and kind of having readings and community groups because there were people who had the attitude, well, you know, black folks don't read. So it was hard for some of these authors to get traction. Some of them were self-published and so forth. So when you first got started, what kinds of books did you sell? And you were saying you had to make some adjustments, and what adjustments did you make?

Mr. SANA: Well, for example, primarily what we sold was, you know, African history, (unintelligible), stuff like that. But one of the books I noticed that selling extremely well was "Black Erotica." People loved that book, you know, so it was fictional, but it had poetry. It was an anthology of writing. I think Terry McMillan had a piece in there, so different people.

Fiction was something that was really big, especially with women. But then we noticed when we moved into the stores, well, a lot of young brothers come out of prison, off the streets, were looking for these - what we call now street life novels - Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim. Those books were extremely, extremely popular. So, you know, then we were - people looking for Christian books, so - again, I mean, T.D. Jakes was extremely, extremely popular. So those are some of the initial titles that - but we never had a problem with finding readers. I mean, the issue was actually trying to select books that were filled with quality.

MARTIN: Did you ever have to hold your nose and sell something that you just thought this should not be here?

Mr. SANA: Oh, all the time, all the time. As the company grew, it became a constant struggle to recruit staff who were what we would call conscious or who took an interest in a wide range of literature. And I would turn my back, all of a sudden we'd have staff who knew only street life literature, and to some extent, that's okay. But then we'd have a 50-year-old customer who is coming in, and we have staff people who can't service them at all. And so I realized that Karibu as a company had to become a learning organization.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Simba Sana, the CEO and a co-founder of Karibu Books. It has to be said, though, that you built this business at a time when independent bookstores have really struggled. I mean, I believe that the latest figures we saw are that there are about 1,350 independent bookstores around the country.

Of that, about 160 or so are African-American owned. But all independents have been, not trying to be melodramatic, but they've been challenged by the rise of sort of super-stores like the discount stores like Wal-Mart, Costco, all sell books now.

So I'm interested in, like, how you were able to - or why you think you were able to succeed in that environment when a lot independents were closing?

Mr. SANA: A lot of independent bookstores do have a humungous task in dealing with the Borders and the Barnes & Nobles of the world. But for a black bookseller, actually, it's one of the cases where it's actually easier for us.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. SANA: Because we're a specialty store. We have black literature. I mean, you know, in this case, racism to some extent helps us because of our history here and the fact that black people, we still don't know who were are. Still, there's so much self-hatred within us that we have stores that dedicated entirely to black people.

Now, of course, you know, we service everyone who comes in. But, I mean, it's the only time I've ever overheard a customer say that that was their store. I mean, there's a psychological attachment, an emotional attachment to what we do.

MARTIN: People would seek you out specifically…

Mr. SANA: It's like the black barbershop.

MARTIN: …specifically to come to you. They would bypass the Wal-Mart. They would bypass the Costco to buy their books from you.

Mr. SANA: Yeah, as long as we're good. You know, being black is the icing on the cake for us. That's the way we viewed it. Karibu is a refuge place for -you know, like James Baldwin once said that black people, we're always acting, and we work for the man. And we have to act in order to bring the bread home, to make the bacon, so to speak. And we can rarely allow our hair to, you know, kind of fall down. When we come to a place like Karibu, you can be who you are, and then so Karibu became that place.

Now, that being said, because of our psychological issues, when you come into a place like Karibu, you know, because there's been so much pain within us, you know, we may complain a bit more in Karibu. In other words, black customers may expect more from us. However, we understand the issues. So if we meet the expectation, I mean, there's no reason why a company like Karibu should go out of business. And the only reason why it did because of personal issues.

MARTIN: Well, what do you mean?

Mr. SANA: Well for me personally, and that's why when people would ask me about the demise of Karibu, you know I would never - I just had to be honest about it and say it was personal. It was - for me personally, it was - where in hindsight I can say maybe about four years ago I began a journey to become a whole person, that I now realize that I wasn't a complete person, and I really didn't have love in my life.

Most of my relationship weren't based on honesty. And so you can't have love without honesty, and vice versa. Those words are really synonymous, those terms. And so as I began a spiritual journey, actually I can say now that for most of my life, I didn't believe in God. So that's a thing that resulted from my childhood. So as these things began to unfold and I began this journey, then I had to make changes in my life, and those changes, eventually, you know, resulted in the demise of Karibu.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask why? I mean, clearly there's something that you want to keep private, but to the degree that you feel you can say, is it that you didn't have a succession plan in place? You wanted to withdraw some from the business because you wanted to attend to other things in your life, and the business couldn't sustain your lack of full-time, 150-percent involvement? Is that part of it?

Mr. SANA: Well, really it was the relationships. You know, my business partner, you know, I'm going through a divorce now. And I got to a point in my life where the relationships that were close to me, I realize that I was not -I wasn't happy, and this essentially led to the demise of the business.

It wasn't about competition or lack of customers. It was really about, you know, my love affair with Karibu that led to - you know, I couldn't afford to dedicate that focus to it and be a complete person. And when I tried to set up a system that would allow me to keep the company afloat, then I had to, you know, ending the other relationships took too much away from me. I just couldn't hold it all. And actually, and then the company began to lose money.

And I guess when you talk about business and finances, what I have learned from this experience, perhaps the two most important things, is that if you really want to be successful, you really have to have love in your life. That's the foundation for everything.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. SANA: Yeah, I believe so.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Tell us more about that, because I think that a lot of the - I confess I'm not a student of these business books, but I've read a few of them, right? And the attitude seems to be you've got to give it everything, 150 percent. You've got to just, you know, you've got to put the work at the center. It's got to be all about…

Mr. SANA: I believe that, and I embrace that, and Karibu was very successful as a result. However, it's like robbing Peter to pay Paul.

MARTIN: I'm just wondering, why didn't you just sell your stake in the business as opposed to closing the whole business down? Was that an option?

Mr. SANA: Well, at the time, I believed to the very end was that Karibu would survive as a growing concern. So, I mean, I didn't give up. I mean, I closed the business because I had to. Bills could not be paid anymore, and so the business had to shut down.

MARTIN: What was that like for you, to have to disassemble that which you had built?

Mr. SANA: Oh, I was thankful. Initially, it was a lot of anger. So eventually, you begin to look at yourself. And you say well, everything happened for a reason. There's something I'm supposed to learn from this. And actually, despite my deep financial woes at this point, I'm happier than I've ever been as an adult. And I'm very confident that that happiness, and I have found love in my life, that that will lead to even better things. So, you know, I look at the dissolution of Karibu as not a sad thing. It actually is, hopefully, the opening up of some other opportunities.

MARTIN: Well, you have been answering this all along, but I do want to ask, what words of wisdom do you have for us as a result of this experience?

Mr. SANA: Well business-wise, it's that the most important thing in business -and nothing else really can compare - is relationships. Business is really about relationships and the quality of them, and the more honest your relationship is with the people you're in business, you know, the better you will perform.

Look at professional sports. I mean, you look at some of the teams, the New England Patriots. I mean, the teams that really do well, you know, they talk about the chemistry in the locker room. And so that right there is an indication that, you know, the team's going to play better. And this may be the year that they win that championship. But when there's tension, you know, amongst the coaches and players - the same thing in business. So that's -business-wise, it's the most important thing I've learned. Money stems from that.

MARTIN: So the relationships have to have integrity?

Mr. SANA: Oh, they have to. They must.

MARTIN: And you mean the relationships of the people running the business, or you mean the relationships with the customers, or all of that?

Mr. SANA: Oh, it stems from the top. And again, that's why when we talk about the demise of Karibu. I cannot separate myself from the cause, that the leadership sets the tone for everything. And if you find effective leadership, then you will see it will transmit all the way down through interaction between customers and your staff people.

MARTIN: Simba Sana is the former CEO and co-founder of Karibu Books. He joined me in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SANA: Well, thank you for having me.

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