The bookstore would have been easy enough to pass without registering, even for a bibliophile like me, had it not been for the eye-catching window display. All manner of Obama memorabilia – buttons, bumper stickers, die cut images, campaign posters, handbills, photographs – punctuated the dozen or more books proudly showcasing our nation’s 44th president. It was less than three months into his term and Obamamania was at full throttle. Upon initial glance, the nondescript façade of Rebecca’s Books was indistinquishable among its neighbors -- a social service agency, a check cashing facility, a homely takeout eatery, and People’s Bazaar, a well-established antique store (our original destination), in a forlorn-looking block of businesses on the north Oakland-Berkeley border. Intriqued by the window wares, Verdell and I decided to go inside to have a look around.
Two hours later, with packages in hand, we departed.
Rebecca’s Books was an unexpected oasis. Owner Mary Ann Braithwaite and a life-size replica of President Obama warmly welcomed us into this enchanting, if narrow, paradise. Prominently displayed along one wall were a host of books and commemorative magazines on the new commander-in-chief and his photogenic family. Even more prominent and curious were the multitude of large, framed sepia tone and black and white photographs of the owner’s ancestors that peered down at us from high brick walls. Ms. Braithwaite encouraged us to take our time looking around. We needed no prompting as we browsed row upon row of shelves of books – new and used – written by and about African Americans and Africans throughout the diaspora.
It’s not every day that anyone stumbles upon a bookstore devoted to the Black experience. I’ve been to a few over the years – Marcus Books (Oakland and San Francisco), Eso Wan (Los Angeles), and Hue-Man (originally located in Denver, but now in New York) – so I was dying to query Ms. Braitwaite about her uncommon business venture. But first I wanted to know if she carried a particular Obama tome, one that I was a contributing writer in. I wanted to show Verdell, my former secondary school algebra teacher, my letter in Go, Tell Michelle: African American Women Write to the New First Lady (SUNY Press, 2009) . Unfortunately, the book was out of stock, but Ms. Braithwaite was just as curious about Verdell and I as we were about her decision to become a bookseller. She thought it “cool” that I, a mature woman, was hanging out with my former math teacher on my birthday. As other customers came and went, all stopping long enough to join in our impromptu confab, we learned that Ms. Braithwaite had acted on her dream to own a bookstore and was struggling to maintain it in a “marginal” neighborhood that hadn’t had a bookstore in its midst. Marketing and public relations strategies were shared (I have an undergraduate degree in the latter) and I offered to organize a reading and book signing in the fall of 2009 when the editors of Go: Tell Michelle would be in northern California for another book event.
Four months later, on a crisp, hot Friday afternoon in September, editors Barbara Nevergold and Peggy Brooks-Bertram, both from Brooklyn, and eight of the nine California contributors in Go, Tell Michelle converged upon Rebecca’s Books in Berkeley to read our selections to an enthusiastic and grateful overflow crowd of old and new patrons.
Named after the owner’s mother, Rebecca’s Books is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood and as such has yet to build a loyal following of customers at a time when many independents and giant chain outlets are faced with dwindling revenue. Introducing this inviting establishment to my growing network of friends and acquaintances will hopefully allow Rebecca’s Books to flourish during a time when an informed populace is more critical than ever. A great place to start is with a bookstore devoted to preserving America’s history and promoting truth.