HomeNEWSBLACK GIRL MAGICTurning Pages at Urban Reader Bookstore

Turning Pages at Urban Reader Bookstore

Hi SwagHer Fam! One of my favorite hobbies is reading. I love a good book and reading from different genres. Whether I’m swiping pages on my Kindle or turning pages from a paperback or hardcopy. I love going to the library and bookstores. I love the atmosphere and the smell. Yeah, I love the smell of books. I know, corny, but what can I say? Today, I’m interviewing Sonyah Spencer of Urban Reader Bookstore. Urban Reader is a Black-owned indie bookstore in Charlotte, N.C.  

 

Janet: Let’s start off with an easy question, shall we? What is your SwagHer? What makes Sonyah, Sonyah? 

Sonyah: I always tell people I’m the most complicated person you’ll ever meet. LOL! Being raised as an Air Force brat in a predominantly white town in Fairborn, OH, then moving to Atlanta, GA. I had my first son at 21 and my second son at 26. All during that, I was able to graduate from college, got my dream job at General Motors, worked there for like 15 years, and moved to Charlotte in 2015. I got out of corporate America in 2017. I started a business called Quality Audit Solutions, which is an engineering, accounting, research, and management service. I do that during the week while my son manages the bookstore.  

 

Janet: Tell us a little about yourself. Where did you go to school? 

Sonyah: I always knew I was destined to work for myself. In my younger years, I used to sell Avon. LOL! I’ve always had a side gig. I’ve had my turkey legs business and wings business, and then I got tired of food and went back to selling books. I went to Park University on the AFB before 9/11 and earned my MBA online from Keller Graduate School of Management. I love to read. We should always want to learn and be better. A book can take you anywhere. It’s a getaway.  

Janet: What was your favorite childhood book?  

Sonyah: One of my favorite authors was Judy Blume and then I liked Charlotte’s Web. I got into the Black Panther movement when I was about 18, so I was reading things like Shadow of the Panther. Then I got into psychology books.

Janet: How long have you been in business? 

Sonyah: The bookstore has been around since 2003. I started selling books online about 20 years ago. When I moved to Michigan, I had a little kiosk for books. I also had a brick-and-mortar store in the old Eastland Mall, but it closed in 2006 after audiobooks and e-books took over the market.  

  Janet: What made you decide to open Urban Reader? 

Sonyah: There wasn’t a lot of promotion for African American books. In 2020, after calls for social justice echoed around the country, more people wanted to support black authors. I decided to open Urban Reader. It’s been open since July 2021.  

Janet: 2020 was so challenging for so many people, and for some, still is. Now, that wasn’t the case for everyone. There were positive changes for people as well. What kept you going personally, and how did you keep the bookstore going? What strategies did you implement?  

Sonyah: I had so much faith that things would get better once we were able to get out from under the president at that time and Covid lifted. Most independent bookstores break even. I’m trying to change my strategy. Pretty much, we are the only black bookstore in Charlotte. It has been challenging. That’s all I can say.  

Janet: How do you advertise?  

Sonyah: Honestly, that is my weakest point. I’m trying to figure out how I can do better with marketing. I need to hire someone to help with that. I need to hire someone that understands this industry, and that’s hard to find.  

Janet: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to business ownership? 

Sonyah: Believe in yourself. I walked out of General Motors in 2017, which is a different story. The amount of disrespect Black professional women get was too much and I was at my breaking point. I had nothing to lose. I tell people that you always have the option to return to corporate if you have the background, experience, and education. Take a leap of faith. It’s lonely sometimes. In our culture, sometimes we don’t like to see each other succeed, but I’m still here, and I’ve signed two new contracts for next year.  

Janet: What’s on the horizon regarding the future?  

Sonyah: My new venture is the bookmobile. I’ll be able to go to the schools and other businesses and set up locations on the weekends. 

Janet: I love your bookstore. I love the atmosphere and how it’s set up. What’s your favorite section of the bookstore? 

Sonyah: Thank you. When you walk in, the left shelf is my shelf. These are books that I have in my personal library or I feel is important. The other shelves are blend-ins for children, teens, young adults, Black authors, etc.  

Janet: What’s been the biggest challenge of running a bookstore?  

Sonyah: Marketing has been a challenge. You must keep traffic by keeping people interested and creating events for the store. I’m waiting for Harold’s Chicken and Ice Bar to open, and I know that’ll bring in more foot traffic for the bookstore.  

Janet: What has been the biggest surprise or the sweetest surprise?

Sonyah: The authors. They send me stuff. My publishers are great to work with also.  

Janet: Do you host author events? 

Sonyah: Yes, I do. My goal is to get more famous authors in the bookstore. I was also offering open mic events. It was every 3rd Saturday of the month, from 3p-5p. I need to start that backup and get it back on Eventbrite.  

Janet: Do you have a regular customer base that frequents the store?  

Sonyah: Yes. As you know, I sell other items besides books, so I have repeat customers that come in to buy soaps and items made by other black-owned businesses. I have a few book clubs that order books from me. I’m working with a middle school that’s predominantly Black and Hispanic, and I’m hoping to do a pop-up book fair for them. For one family, I ship books to their son.

Janet: Do you offer customer rewards?  

Sonyah: Yes, I do have a Groupon out. I have to do more when it comes to that and be able to get it out there.  

Janet: What is one thing you wish would change regarding black-owned businesses?  

Sonyah: We just go too hard on our business owners. We, as an African American culture are very critical. The way we get feedback is more negative than positive. Also, being able to support each other more in the business. 

Janet: Do you ship or place special orders for your customers?  

Sonyah: Yes, I do both.

Janet: What would you like the Black community…well, let me rephrase that. What would you like the community as a whole to understand about Black ownership and when they decide to patron Urban Reader?  

Sonyah: Our kids need books. They’re banning our books in these schools. It’s up to the parents to find a way for their children to read books about them written by Black authors. We can buy everything else, but we’re not investing in our children in terms of helping them to know about their history.  

Janet: Of course, the easiest and most obvious way to support Urban Reader is to buy books, but what else can we do to support? 

Sonyah: Yes, come in, find something that you like, whether that be a book or other items that I offer, support any events that I bring to the bookstore, and invest in your children by bringing them in. Tell your family and friends.  

Janet: If you could invite any author for a book signing, who would it be?  

Sonyah: Barack and Michelle Obama. Also, I love Robert Greene and Omar Epps.  

Janet: Urban Reader sells new and used books. Tell us about other offerings.  

Sonyah: I support other small black-owned businesses in my bookstore by selling their products, like soaps, custom earrings, plaques, bags, and candles.  

Janet: Urban Readers is in a prime geographic area and has the growth potential. How did you choose this location?  

Sonyah: I went to the African Art Gallery’s grand opening. He’s right around the corner from me, and I was like, wow, this is a very diverse shopping center. I called the landlord, and that’s how I got here.  

Janet: How do you choose the books you stock?  

Sonyah: I have advance copies all the way out to June of next year. Either the publishers send me advance copies of books, I review Publisher’s Weekly, and then I get a ton of emails from the publishers, so I can pick and choose. 

Janet: What brings in the biggest revenue for Urban Reader?  

Sonyah: My three highest months of sales are Black History Month, Juneteenth, & Independent Bookstore Month, which is in April. Here in Charlotte, we have what we call Greater Charlotte Book Crawl.  

Janet: What was your most interesting or memorable customer?  

Sonyah: I discovered that one of my customers is actually my massage therapist. He’s been rubbing me down for three months now, and I didn’t even realize it was him. LOL! He’s amazing! LOL!  

Janet: You’ve been in business a long time, and that’s definitely to be celebrated. How would you describe your bookstore’s success?  

Sonyah: Knowing the business and lots of hard work. Plus, I can connect to people about anything and now my son is learning the business and doing well with it.  

Janet: What do you do for fun?  

Sonyah: I love to run, so I enter races like the triathlon. I probably have over 100 medals. Running was my therapy. It’s costly to enter these international races, but I love it. I also like to swim.  

Janet: How can people keep up w/ you or the bookstore?  

Sonyah: I’m on all social media platforms. My website is urbanreaderbook.com, and I’m on bookshop.org, where you can support my bookstore by buying the book through me.  

Let’s make sure we support our local black-owned bookstores. Like, share, visit, buy. Urban Reader Bookstore is located at 440 E McCullough Dr #A-130, Charlotte, NC. 

 

 

Interview Done by: Janet Downs | Janet Downs is an instructor with over 20 years of experience, having worked with Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations. She volunteers and is a resource for the homeless community and is working towards starting her own non-profit. She’s passionate about mental health and seeks to bring more awareness to the black community. She is active in church ministry, a writer, and loves music, hiking, and travel.

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