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February is Black Heritage Month, and that's when most of the bookstores would bring out the stuff by current African-American authors other than Toni Morrison and Terry McMillan and Alice Walker and Bebe Moore Campbell. There'd be little displays and everything.
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Then the month would end and it would all go away. So another year would pass and then it would be February again, and a new batch of black-authored books and little displays would appear. But unless the author was a major award winner or best seller, March would bring still more disappearing acts.
"We were tired of looking for books that we liked," says Colbert, a customer-service representative for American Express in Phoenix. "You know, there's that stereotype that blacks don't buy books, or that they don't read. And blacks in this city are so spread out that there's no one store they go to to buy books, so it's logical that it's not worth most stores' time to stock a regular collection."
So she and Lee, a fellow customer-service rep at American Express, created Black Venus Book Service, an enterprise they hope will appease the local thirst they and others share for literature by and about African Americans. The name refers to the Roman goddess of love, and to the fact that the pair's original intent was to feature black romances as opposed to the love fests penned by writers like Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon.
"Black women like to read romance novels," Colbert says. "But we couldn't find any out there about us."
In its stapled catalogue, Black Venus features black romance titles such as This Magic Moment by Langston Oliver Harris, Indiscretions by Donna Hill and A Sheik's Spell by Eboni Snoe. But it's also got religion. It's got nonfiction. It's got mystery and children's literature. And except for those books that have made the New York Times best-seller honor roll, most of the selections can't be found on the shelves of bookstores other than barn-size book-o-ramas like Bookstar or Barnes & Noble.
To promote themselves, Colbert and Lee leave their business cards at black-owned establishments. They make presentations at places like Bev's Kitchen and the First Institutional Baptist Church and rely on word of mouth. But the real Black Venus bonanza is the occasional book "party" the women throw in people's homes … la Tupperware, only without the fine pastel colors.
"Romance, nonfiction, love, sex, inspirational material--we have it all," Colbert says.
Nationally, the publishing prospects of African-American authors have multiplied as the black middle class has grown. But it's still books like Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler and Sanyika Shakur's Monster, both borne of inner-city violence, that typically make the general-audience best-seller lists.
So publishers are often surprised by sales figures that accompany other efforts such as Essence magazine editor Susan Taylor's collection of inspirational essays, In the Spirit, a book that sold in the hundreds of thousands without making those lists, which are generally compiled from chain-store reports. It was distributed not only in bookstores but at sidewalk book tables. A few years ago, the New York Times noted that many eyebrows elevated at the one-day $24,000 sales tally posted in Stamford, Connecticut, by the Black Family Cultural Exchange, a group of mothers that had a book fair to sell literature by, for or about black children.
But wielding the same sort of selling power in a city like Phoenix, which is less than 5 percent African American, is a trick of a different color. Few retailers even try.
That's where Colbert and Lee came in.
It was the summer of '93, and, by day, they dreamed. Being spiritual women, they prayed, although not to the goddess of love. In their spare time, they chased their dreams; Lee began writing to publishers, probing the possibilities, and, after a time, the publishers started writing back.
Around Christmas, Colbert and Lee compiled a list of books to start things off, by better-known writers like Morrison and Walker and Gloria Naylor. A month of medical leave for Colbert followed; she used the time to procure a business license and kick things into gear. Lee came over twice a week to help with the paperwork.
They scheduled their first "party" in March, and invited family, friends and co-workers, just to see if the idea would fly.
Another party followed. And then another--yes, the fledgling operation was a word-of-mouth success.
At their latest party, they handed out their first newsletter and announced plans to eventually branch into Hispanic and Native American authors.
"I wouldn't be here if people weren't interested," says George Reed, Joanne's brother, a restless postal employee in cap and athletic suit who serves as Black Venus' sales manager. It's a lot of work for an avocation, but he senses something is brewing. "Everywhere we go, it's like, people see our cards and go, 'Oh, yeah, I heard about you.'"
"Up until Black Venus, I'd have to call Cincinnati, or New York, or Chicago, to pick up something that relates to us," says the Reverend Jerry W. Hillman of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix, who has ordered several spiritual and inspirational titles.