Basically, Debra Colbert and Joanne Lee got tired of waiting until February.

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.

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.

"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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