Wading through the humidity and past a row of street vendors selling tchochkes and foot massages, The Observer arrived at Hue-Man Bookstore and Café on Sunday, greeted rather unceremoniously by a door smattered in closing notices. Once in, sparse shelves offered brand-new paperbacks like Cheetah Girls, randomly interspersed with time-worn hard covers such as The Ethiopian Famine and The History of Calvinism Volume III. Final sale flyers were scattered throughout. Once considered a part of the most recent Harlem renaissance, the cultural Mecca was on the last legs of its 10-year run—officially closing its doors at the end of the month—and looked as much.
“The closing is a confluence of things,” CEO and Hue-Man partner Marva Allen would later tell us. “It’s the publishing industry that’s gone into a free fall. It’s the fact that our lease is up after ten years and—with the new rent in Harlem—we would not have been able to sustain it. But most importantly I believe that any bookstore that wants to move into the future needs to address the [conflicting] dynamics of technology and the analog bookstore. So we decided why not step out now and take that opportunity to learn?”
But tonight they celebrated what had become a gathering ground for the neighborhood’s literary community. We looked around. Only a few customers sat in small groups at tables up front—the store was otherwise empty—had the celebration come and gone? We approached the front desk and asked for Ms. Allen, who had invited us.
“Marva’s at the party.” The cashier gestured towards the back of the store.
Bookshelves were pushed aside, leaving a large open space in the middle where old friends laughed and chatted while their grandchildren chased each other. Fold-up chairs and parked strollers with shiny plastic balloons tied to their handles traced a circle in the middle of the room. The smell of fried chicken and plantains wafted over from the buffet. It was a stark contrast from what had welcomed us.
A man erupted with laughter. “Hey, since we’re closing, how about finishing the wine?”
Ms. Allen, the matriarch of the community gathering just north of 124th street on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, was busy tending to a bevy of garrulous guests but we were able to take a turn find ourselves in a warm hug. “I’m so happy your here! Please grab a drink!” The evening was set to begin, so we let her take her place in front of the small but coming crowd.
We, ourselves, made our way through the buffet line where two young women told us this was only their third time at Hue-Man, but that they had come all the way from Brooklyn to say goodbye. Our plate piled high with fried plantains, we pushed up against a wall of children’s picture books.
Ms. Allen called for quiet and twenty or so guests took a seat in the fold-up chairs. The remaining guests stood behind, holding plates, books, and in some cases, the hands of young children or grandchildren they brought to share the occasion.
Ms. Allen spoke a few words of introduction for Fela cast members Gelan Lambert and Melanie Marshall, who described their experiences as part of Broadway’s hit show and the importance of black history: “Not just in America,” said Ms. Marshall, “but the whole thing.” Ms. Marshall continued with the importance of educating the next generation, and the role both musicals and books play in realizing those aspirations for the present youth. “Our children are our future and if we don’t teach them now the greatness of the people that they came from, they will never know. So it is your responsibility to pass this information on through our children.” Flyers were then passed around that provided codes for online ticket discounts. Mr. Lambert and Ms. Marshall, as well as several seated guests who had already seen Fela, urged their fellow party-goers to attend the show before it’s due to close in two weeks.
Ms. Allen introduced the next attraction: the six-year-old son of one long-time Hue-Man affiliate, who coolly took to the stage in the center of the circle for a drum performance. As he played a drum almost as big as himself, his younger sister danced while encouraging cheers and spontaneous applause broke out from members of the audience. Despite the approving clamor, the kid professional only cracked a smile a few beats after he stopped drumming. Amidst the cheering, Ms. Allen could be heard: “And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our future.”
Conversation grew among the still seated guests, some of whom knew each other intimately, and some not at all, as Ms. Allen urged one after another to tell their memories of Hue-Man.
One elder woman, a local English teacher, recounted the story of how she became involved with Hue-Man. “My mother taught me to be perfectly frank, so I approached Marva one day and gave her my critique of the spelling and grammar of the store’s news letter, and as I look back I think it was a bit insulting. However, she didn’t take offense—she said if you think you can do a better job, then you come in here and do it yourself!” As the topic turned to the impending close she added, “I just hope that sometime next week I hit the lotto so I can say ‘We’re not going, everyone! We’re not going yet!’ I’ve played lotto every single day since I heard.”
Ever the supporter of this small community, Ms. Allen took gracious note of the sentiment, but pressed on. “I don’t want you to think this is your fault.” Instead she thanked them for their support and friendship. While she later confided that she believed their closing would leave a “huge, huge hole,” she was confident that they would be around in some iteration or another.
The evening carried on, as Ms. Allen and Hue-Man hoped their influence would.