In recent weeks, as many people struggled to understand the deep wounds of racism and injustice in the wake of several high-profile incidents of police violence, they turned to books. As reported in Publishers Weekly, book sales have been increasing, “led by big sales jumps for a number of books tied to race and social justice movements.” Many of those sales were at Black-owned bookstores, which have seen their sales soar. As one bookstore owner told the New York Times, “We went from moving 3,000 books a week to 50,000 books a week.”
While Black-owned bookstores are currently making news, they, like most Black-owned businesses, have always been an important part of the Black community. As researchers Vickie Cox Edmondson and Archie B. Carroll explain, “Black-Americans have a significant stake in the success of Black-owned businesses because of the impact they have in the Black community.”
The country’s first Black-owned bookstore opened in New York City in 1834, the brainchild of David Ruggles. He was an abolitionist, founder and writer of the anti-slavery newspaper Mirror of Liberty, and one of the early organizers of a network that would become the Underground Railroad. Everything about his work, including his bookstore, was done to support and fight for Black lives.
Born into a free Black family in Connecticut in 1810, Ruggles’s early exposure to the abolitionist movement was through his parents and church. His own interest in the movement strengthened when he moved to New York in 1825, which biographer Graham Russell Gao Hodges notes in his book David Ruggles was generally “unsafe for blacks…. Public discrimination and insulting behavior toward blacks were rampant.”
Further, as historian and librarian Dorthy B. Porter explained in a 1943 article for the Jounal of Negro History, due to the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, “any colored person in the state of New York was liable to arrest as a fugitive from slavery and…would be denied the right of trial by jury.” Ruggles himself would narrowly escape such a kidnapping attempt.
He began working for abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator as a traveling salesman and speaker. Porter explains that Ruggles used these trips “to urge Negroes to support the anti-slavery press and better their own economic, cultural and social condition, [and] he used them also to begin his fight against the colonization movement and for equal rights for the Negro.”
He continued this message by opening his own bookstore, stocked with abolitionist and feminist publications. He later expanded to include a reading room and lending library, as most of the city’s literary hubs excluded Black people. Although there was a joiner’s fee, Ruggles’s reading room was free to city visitors, a nod that it was safe for those escaping slavery. One such visitor was Frederick Douglass, whom Ruggles took in, hiding him for several days before sending him with money and letters of introduction to fellow abolitionists in New Bedford.
According to Porter, it is said that Ruggles would help “more than 1000 men and women to escape from slavery.” His bookstore was much more than a literary space, as Hodges writes—these books were providing “knowledge to support and strengthen the abolitionist movement.”