"There's just a need," Colbert says, "for something like this in Phoenix."

Madonna is on the radio, Martin and Jesse are on the refrigerator and African-American art blankets the walls as a small crowd gathers in the Ahwatukee home of Peggy Paschall, another American Express employee. Paschall went to one of Black Venus' book parties about a month earlier, and, being an avid reader herself, immediately grasped the social possibilities.

Colbert says that as gatherings have become more popular, party hostesses have gotten more elaborate, issuing stylized invitations to guests or setting out huge spreads. Tonight is no exception, and Paschall has gone one better, inviting a couple of entrepreneurs she knows to display their products--black ceramic figurines and black-oriented Christmas cards--in an adjoining room of the house.

"I think it's a great idea," Paschall says. "As opposed to your Tupperware or Mary Kay party. I just gathered up as many friends as I could, and I have to say, I think we have a bigger crowd here tonight."

About two dozen people sift through the Black Venus selection laid out on two tables and a countertop, settling into stools or on the couch as they flip through the pages of a chosen book: In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self-Esteem; Black Fatherhood; Success Runs in Our Race: A Complete Guide to Effective Networking in the African-American Community; or tailored versions of children's stories like The Ebony Duckling and Jamaka and the Beanstalk.

A woman picks up a thin, squarish book and says, "Peggy, did you see this?" The book is Walter Dean Myers' Brown Angels: An Album of Pictures and Verse, and the cover shot is a dated photo of a little black girl in an oversize chair. "I'm gonna get this book. That is so cute."

Joanne Lee, if she can have their attention for just a moment, begins the presentation in a quiet, refined voice: "As I'm sure you already know, there's no one place you can go to get these books. Every bookstore has a few books that they pick out for you, but you don't know which other authors are out there. We wanted to share some of them with you."

Over here are nonfiction and motivational titles, she says, and over here are religion and romance. "There's a new, upcoming wave of black romances," she says. "And once you read a black romance, you won't read Danielle Steele or none of that stuff no more. It just doesn't do that for you."

The women recommend an author and education consultant named Jawanza Kunjufu, who they say addresses issues critical to African Americans and poses practical solutions to problems. They ask people to sign up for their mailing list and spend the rest of the night filling out order forms.

The most popular titles of the night? Two separate collections--one of daily meditations for people of color, the other of black erotica--that, curiously enough, Colbert notes, are often ordered in tandem.

Mark Crockett, who moved from Tucson recently to work on associate degrees in nursing and writing at Mesa Community College, is chatting it up with another guy on the sofa ensemble; each has an opened book in his hands. Crockett's current reading material, he says, is Scott Turow's Presumed Innocent.

"This is something that's sorely needed," he says. "If you subscribe to black magazines, you might hear about some of these books, but there hasn't been a large enough population anywhere I've lived for stores to care about serving that market. Finding something like this is a godsend."

Olivia Jones, a beautician and single mother raising a daughter and three boys ages 6, 8 and 11, is learning how to raise sons alone--the other day, she says, she even put her oldest boy's shoulder pads on backward before he headed off for Pop Warner football practice. She's ordering all three volumes of Kunjufu's Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys.

"I think it's good that a small group of people would get together and visualize something like this and make it come true," she says.

By the end of the night, Colbert and Lee have taken orders for more than two dozen books, and if their sprouting operation is going to prosper, now's a good time for it: Both will lose their jobs as American Express shuts down its office at 24th Street and Lincoln, although their department will be among the last to go.

A dozen or so of Black Venus' books peek out from shelves at some of the larger book barns if you look hard enough, but Black Venus offers the African-American community something the bookstores can't--an opportunity for socializing in a new, enlightening context.

"I have seen more black people here tonight than I did in 14 years in Tucson," says Crockett, exaggerating, but probably not by much.

So Colbert and Lee are almost looking forward to getting laid off, if that is possible. Colbert figures June is when the hatchet will fall. She says: "For me, it's not soon enough.

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