A self-proclaimed bibliophile and, as much as possible in this big-box burg, a loyal patron of independent booksellers, I am pretty picky about bookstores and I don’t make recommendations if I’ve got reservations about a place. Malcolm’s Reading Room is noteworthy not only because it’s Birmingham’s only bookstore specializing in African-American literature, but also because it is a cultural center for young African-American artists and musicians. Located on 17th Street North, the bookstore is in the heart of the Civil Rights District just off of Fourth Avenue, the city’s historic black business district. When young people come together at Malcolm’s Reading Room to hear DJs spinning records or poets giving spoken word performances or to bring their kids to the children’s book club or pick up a paperback for themselves, there’s a stirring of new energy in an old place — a reminder that the reversal of urban decay always depends on artists. If the Carver Theatre is that neighborhood’s beating heart and eateries like Green Acres and Nelson Brothers its lifeblood, then Malcolm’s may be its lungs — as in, a breath of fresh air.
Husband and wife, Courtney and Simone Snelling opened Malcolm’s Reading Room in 2007, naming the store in honor of their oldest son. Owning a bookstore was the realization of a shared dream for the couple — both are voracious readers — and, according to Simone, a way to immerse their son in African-American history and culture every day.
“We call it a book and lifestyle store,” Simone explains. “It’s a place like Greencup Books or Charlemagne in that it’s a cultural center. For me, the store is a way to move the cultural scene forward. Music and art come together here because it’s a place for our generation to come together and make those things.”
Malcolm’s Reading Room will host its inaugural weekend festival July 10-12. The festival begins with a open mic poetry session at 7 p.m. on Friday, July 10, hosted by renowned spoken-word artist and songwriter Sharrif Simmons. His band, Sharrif Simmons, will perform later in the evening, followed by the Common Ground Trio, DJ Jr. Star and Don Johnson. On Saturday, July 11, Ladies of Soul perform at 7 p.m., opening for Birmingham jazz vocalist Shaundra Smith and spoken-word artist Jessica Care Moore. Moore is a Detroit native and five-time winner of the nationally televised Showtime at the Apollo performance contest for poetry. Sunday’s events begin with a 3 p.m. silent auction featuring books, CDs and original artwork. From 5-7 p.m. will be a panel discussion on the role of independent businesses in furthering Birmingham’s cultural scene. The festival concludes with a performance by hip-hop artist S. Fly (of Red Light District) at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for the weekend or $10 for single-day events.
All proceeds from the festival will go to the educational programs at Malcolm’s, which include a book club for children, an independent film series and a natural hair lecture series for African-American women.
“When we did our first live music event, it made a tremendous difference in foot traffic,” Simone says. “The same with the art openings that we try to do once a month. Although we have regular book people — people that always come in for books — the books don’t always bring people through the door first. The T-shirts on display in the window, the art on the walls — those things bring people in and hopefully, then, they might see a book that they like. Once people are in, the books are there for them.”
Bookstore regulars tend to become friends to the Snellings. Simone grew up in Birmingham and attended Public Schools, graduating from Ramsay in 2000. She went to Tuskegee University, and, when she came back to Birmingham after her graduation in 2005, she found the cultural scene she had appreciated so much as a teenager somewhat diminished — both locations of Mahogany Books (another African-American specialty bookstore) had closed, and the Soul Rebels, a crew of musicians and artists who were among her closest friends, had gone their separate ways. Two years later, she had married Courtney, given birth to Malcolm and had a day job. Opening a bookstore was just a fantasy — until she went home to visit family in Chicago and wandered in to an African-American bookstore that was closing.
“[The owner] called and told me that the inventory of this place would be perfect for the bookstore we wanted to have,” she remembers. “It seemed like fate, like destiny. They were selling the whole inventory for, like, 90 percent off. We bought about $500 worth of books. I called and paid for them over the phone.”
The couple opened the doors in December 2007. With the exception of a few weeks earlier this year when economic hardship forced them to close the business, Malcolm’s Reading Room has been going strong ever since. Malcolm is always there with one of his parents and there’s a new baby brother (Simone jokes that if the empire grows, Maasai might have a reading room named for him, too).
“We’re here in the center of the Civil Rights Trail, in the historically black business district,” Simone says. “I’m proud that we’re here. It matters that we’re here.”
Malcolm’s Reading Room Weekend Festival will take place July 10-12 at the bookstore, located at 404 17th St. North. Weekend passes to the event cost $25 and single-day passes cost $10. All proceeds go to the educational and cultural programs at Malcolm’s Reading Room. Tickets are available on site at Malcolm’s, as well as at Greencup Books and the Charlemagne Record Exchange. For more information, call (205) 261-9298 or visit www.malcolmsreadingroom.com.