Urban Reader bookstore turns the page on black authors

Sonyah Spencer, owner of The Urban Reader bookstore on East McCullough Drive in Charlotte, features black authors and expands to include a wider range of literature from underrepresented groups.

Sonyah Spencer’s intention is to bring Charlotte together, one book at a time.

Spencer, owner of The Urban Reader, a physical bookstore specializing in African American books and authors. She began her mission to make black-oriented literature more accessible as a college student who felt there was an underrepresented market that she hoped to change.

“I noticed there was a shortage of African American books in the market. I found a wholesaler and would buy a few books to resell at a profit,” she said.

From there, Spencer opened her first retail store in Detroit in 2005. After closing the storefront a few years later, she traveled with her books and participated in exhibitions, pop-up events and book signings in festivals. When she moved to Charlotte, she saw the need for African American authors in the area. There was a whole market of books that the department stores didn’t sell and the schools banned.

“I was just sitting there like ‘this is ridiculous,’ because I grew up in a military town, so most of my friends didn’t understand the real race relations issues,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘There’s more to Martin Luther King. There’s more to us than that. And so, I decided to open a storefront.

The Urban Reader, located on East McCullough Drive, includes an array of categories such as poetry, business, true crime, comics, and urban street literature. The store initially offered African American books, but began to expand its inventory to include other diverse groups.

“It’s an African-American bookstore, but I ventured into what we call Own Voices, which I picked up at another independent bookstore in Iowa,” Spencer said. “We’re expanding to include AAPI, the LGBTQ community, Indian, Chinese and Hispanic books so all cultures are now inside the store. I’m focusing more on the children’s sections of these books, but I’m trying also to extend to adults.

Spencer’s determination to make everyone feel represented includes making books available that were previously banned from schools.

“I sell all banned books,” she said. “I’ve had clients from rural school communities who got books because they had a book program they were allowed to have in the classrooms, but some say, ‘No, we’re going to teach what we want to teach. So I support the teachers. I give a discount to all educators and military.

In addition to books, The Urban Reader organizes monthly events, such as “Poetry with Friends”. In January there was a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. An hour of the tribute was dedicated to the children present with a dialogue where groups and individuals could speak.

“Every month I tell people that my open mic nights at the bookstore are always different,” Spencer said. “For Black History Month, I’m bringing in more self-published authors. We will be hosting book signing sessions and puzzle and wine nights.

Customers must purchase a 500-piece puzzle to participate in special events, as they can share a glass of wine and chat with friends while they work on it. The bookstore also hosts free “Shufflers,” a meet-and-greet event where attendees can choose a book club title.

Spencer is also passionate about helping small businesses in Charlotte. In addition to books, customers can purchase shipments from local small businesses in the area. Some of the companies to buy from include Rumble Cards, All Very Goods and African American Expressions.

Spencer has high hopes for the future of the bookstore. She wants to expand the storefront into an adjacent building to provide more space for customers to shop and attend events.
The storefront served as a place where people come together and learn from each other, whether through books or conversation. Spencer wants everyone to feel comfortable and welcome when they stop by.

“I want all customers to take away the experience that it’s okay not to know us as African Americans,” she said. “But it’s also good to love each other.” My whole goal for this bookstore is to rebuild the community. That was the only reason I opened it.


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