On a recent day at Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury’s Nubian Square, co-owner Leonard Egerton sorted through waist-high columns of boxes filled with backordered books. Before the day was done, Egerton would take phone calls, assist in-store customers, and coordinate book deliveries — all while wearing a black mask to guard against the lurking coronavirus threat.
Egerton, like many Black bookstore owners nationwide, has been working feverishly to fill the sudden wave of orders for books on race and racism.
“It came like, I guess, like a tsunami,” Egerton told WGBH News in between phone calls and deliveries. He and his wife Clarissa have operated the store since 2008.
Black-owned bookstores are certainly not new, but a new crop of customers have been seeking them out in a conscious effort to support Black businesses and a quest for new titles to help them navigate the country’s moment of reckoning with racism.
The rush, Egerton said, began about a month ago, when protests against racism and police brutality broke out nationwide after the killings of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia.
“And it’s been hectic,” he said, noting his family’s recent loss of a loved one to COVID-19. “And it's overbearing for us at times, but we have to keep pushing on."
Problems arose when the orders outnumbered books in the small store. Egerton and his wife informed customers last month that among the hundreds of daily emails, the store had received a number of complaints, cancellations and refund requests.
"We tried to explain the best that we could that, y’know, this is new for us," Egerton said.
Book publishers, which were also taken by surprise, have caused part of the holdup.
Sourcebooks, which publishes Layla Saad's "Me and White Supremacy," said the company has taken the rare step of issuing multiple, small print runs as a way to get books out more quickly.
“We have, to date, ten printings at three printers totaling nearly 200,000 copies,” a spokesperson said of Saad’s book, first published in January.
A spokesperson for The New Press said they had 40,000 copies of Michelle Alexander's 2010 book "The New Jim Crow" on hand in May, normally a more than ample supply that disappeared “virtually overnight.”
New Frugal customers who spoke with WGBH News, like Alea Capello, seemed to understand the stall.
"It's the same thing like what happened with meat in grocery stores and toilet paper," Capello said during a Zoom interview last week.
Capello, who had been waiting for about a month for her copies of "How to Be Anti-Racist" by Ibram X. Kendi and "Hood Feminism" by Mikki Kendall, lives in Gloucester. She heard about Frugal through social media and made the socially-conscious purchase with the understanding that she would have to wait.
"I do recognize that this is a pandemic, there's a lot of challenges that come with supporting individuals that are really kind of running their operations, so I'm just having the best patience that I can,” Capello said. “When they come, I'll be ready for them."
Cherry Au, another new Frugal customer waiting for a book she ordered in June, has been filling her wait with podcasts, audiobooks and other resources to help her learn more about Black history and think more deeply about race.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a book. It’s not going to teach you to be a better person [or] an anti-racist,” Au said.
At Frugal Bookstore, whose slogan is "Changing minds one book at a time," Egerton agreed.
“People are buying these books with the intention to try to change their thinking or look at things from a different view. So it's kind of apt right now,” Egerton said of his store’s slogan. “But you can't possibly change your mind from the reading of one book or two or three books. [There’s] going to have to be a continuous progression towards that end, reading and talking and being around, empathizing, all of it, to try to understand another person, another people's point of view and where they're coming from.”