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At Frugal Bookstore, black narratives are front and center

Saphia Suarez
At Frugal Bookstore, black narratives are front and center
Frugal Bookstore owners Leonard and Clarissa Egerton were honored as a Boston Main Street business of the year. Joining them at their Dudley Square store are City Councilor Kim Janey, Dudley Main Streets Executive Director Joyce Stanley, Mayor Martin Walsh and Chief of Economic Development John Barros. PHOTO: JEREMIAH ROBINSON, MAYOR’S OFFICE

Frugal Bookstore in Dudley Square is an Afrofuturist’s dream. Smiling brown faces greet you at the door, looking out from the covers of children’s books with titles like “Mixed Me!” and “Juneteenth for Mazie.” Further in, August Wilson classics like “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson” line the shelves. Nearly every book is by or about black and brown people — and that seems to be what brings people through the door.

Owners Clarissa and Leonard Egerton say most customers are looking for urban literature with strong love stories or children’s books that center black and brown characters. “Customers come in and they say, ‘I want a book that my daughter or my son can see themselves in, to build their confidence, their self-esteem,’” Clarissa Egerton explains.

Leonard Egerton first opened the shop with its former owner, Robert Romanow of Frugal Furniture — hence the name of the bookstore. Frugal Bookstore started out as the back section of Frugal Furniture before Romanow asked Leonard to help him open a separate bookstore in 2006, which he would then sell to Leonard. Not long after, Leonard asked Clarissa to help him with the business full time, which she did. The couple has been running the bookstore ever since with help from their daughters and other relatives, making it a family-owned, family-run business.

Frugal Bookstore has been in its Dudley Square location for just three years, after the business was pushed out of the Washington Park Mall due to rising rent.

“They wanted us to sign a new lease, but it was for a longer period of time and for a lot more money, and we just decided that we weren’t going to pay that — we couldn’t even afford what they were charging us before,” Clarissa says.

Now, the bookstore’s more central location seems to be working just fine for the Egertons. They have numerous community collaborations with various organizations, including the Dudley Branch Library, which has been holding many events at the bookstore during its renovations, Cool Girls Book Club, a mother-daughter book group, and 826, a youth writing nonprofit. Frugal Bookstore also holds regular book signings. Erica Dixon from the reality TV show “Love & Hip Hop” just held a book signing there, and this Saturday Paige Love-Rose and Mychea, romance and mystery novelists, respectively, will be signing books at the store.

What’s next?

When looking to the future, the Egertons say they plan to leave their business to their daughters, who regularly help out at the store. In the short term, they’re looking at gentrification as an indicator of business.

“I think it’s going to get busier, if we can weather the storm of gentrification,” Leonard says. “We definitely want to keep it manageable in the family. A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you want to become as big as Barnes and Nobles’ — that’s not necessarily our goal. We just want to continue having a business that hopefully we can pass down to our children and have a staple in the community, because it’s needed.”

He and Clarissa do dream of expansion, if on a smaller scale. They hope to move the business to a larger location that could include a cafe, a merchandise section and a community space to better hold the events they host.

Shopping local

While many bookstores are facing deficits, Clarissa and Leonard say that although customers often compare their prices with Amazon, people are also becoming more conscious of supporting local and black-owned businesses. And, there’s a personal aspect to walking into the store, flipping through pages and asking Clarissa for book recommendations and making recommendations of their own, that customers just can’t replace online.

“I order a lot of the books, so I’m looking through catalogs, I’m reading the reviews online,” Clarissa says. “Our customers, they’re so excited to talk to us about the books, like, ‘Oh, this book had me happy or upset,’ or ‘I was into it!’ and I’ll say, ‘I didn’t read it, what was it about?’ And they’ll tell me, and I’ll say, ‘Wow that sounds like a book I might want to read!’ And so they’ll get into details. A lot of the books they’re into are a series, so they’ll keep coming back and then they’ll fill me in.”

Just like the children of the mothers who come in seeking picture books with black characters, many of the bookstore’s customers are looking for exactly what Frugal Bookstore offers: narratives they can see themselves in.