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A black bookstore survives the COVID pandemic

Frugal Bookstore gets much needed support from Nuestra Comunidad Development Corp.

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
A black bookstore survives the COVID pandemic
Leonard Egerton reopened Frugal Bookstore to walk-in customers last week. BANNER PHOTO

With a statewide stay-at-home order and nonessential retail businesses ordered closed, Leonard Egerton, owner of Frugal Bookstore in Nubian Square, was facing uncertainty.

“I was scared I wouldn’t be able to take care of my family,” he said. “I was scared I would lose this business.”

Businesses around the world faced similar dilemmas — sudden closures and loss of revenue left them with unpaid bills and a looming recession that brought the threat of financial ruin.

Egerton orders books regularly and found himself suddenly unable to pay those bills, let alone rent for his storefront on Warren Street.

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He laid off his three employees, while he and his wife switched their business model to online orders. During March, April and May, Egerton, his wife and other family members hand-delivered books to addresses across the city.

“It was a big decline in revenue,” he said. “People weren’t in the store, browsing.”

Egerton did catch a few breaks that many other businesses weren’t so lucky to receive. Most importantly, his landlord, Nuestra Comunidad Development Corporation, gave him a break on the rent.

David Price, executive director of the Roxbury nonprofit, said, “We approached all of our retail tenants and asked how they were doing,” said. “We worked out agreements on rent relief.”

Price said Nuestra Comunidad received federal Paycheck Protection Program funds, which helped soften the impact of lost rent from multiple retail tenants.

Egerton also launched a GoFundMe campaign that raised $20,000 to help his business get through three lean months.

“It helped us pay our bills,” he said. “Right before this happened, we stocked up on inventory, but then we couldn’t sell it. We still had to pay for it.”

Egerton first opened the bookstore jointly with Robert Romanow, owner of Frugal Furniture in the Washington Park Mall. The bookstore operated within the furniture shop. In 2006, Egerton transitioned the shop to a stand-alone business, with his wife Clarissa joining him in the venture. The business relocated to its current Nubian Square location in 2016, hosting book signings, discussions and other events. All that ground to a halt in March.

On June 17, the store opened its doors to customers for the first time in three months. While traffic is down in Nubian Square and MBTA buses are not yet running at full capacity, Egerton said the volume in the store has been good.

“We’re riding the wave right now,” he said. “Folks still want to read.”

But there’s a note of caution in Egerton’s assessment.

“The virus is still out there,” he said. “People are not social distancing. The governor could order us to close again. We’re taking it day by day, living in the moment.”

As for what’s popular with readers, Egerton said books dealing with topics of race are in demand now, given the ongoing anti-police violence demonstrations taking place around the world.

“Any book that’s written by a black author that has to deal with racial topics is hot,” he said. “Many are on back-order. The book most people want is ‘How to Be an Antiracist’ by Ibram Kendi, next to ‘White Fragility’ and ‘The New Jim Crow.’”

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