Denver's Hue-Man Experience Bookstore doesn't march; it meanders. And, as far as bookstores go, well, the whole place would fit comfortably into one little corner of the cavernous Tattered Cover. But Hue-Man's sizable legacy -- a long-lived commitment to bringing literacy to the African-American community -- is its real strength: One of the largest bookstores of its kind in the nation, the tidy shop in a renovated row house at 911 Park Avenue West (303-293-BOOK) starts that mission with its formidable children's section and backs it up by stocking more than 6,200 titles by and about African-Americans.
It hasn't always been an easy venture to maintain. Hue-Man founder Clara Villarosa, who started the store in 1984, often struggled to keep it going. Villarosa finally gave in to encroaching burnout in 1998 and made the decision to sell the store, though even that was no piece of cake. Hue-Man was more than a store for Villarosa; it was her life. She wasn't prepared to pass the reins to just anyone with a handful of money to invest. It wasn't until three young entrepreneurs -- Joi Afzal, Kim Martin and Daryl Walker, all Denver natives and appreciative store patrons from the get-go -- came along that Villarosa agreed to hand them over. The trio took charge earlier this year, and they're learning the ropes the hard way.
"Right now we're in the afterglow," Walker says. "Or the after-fallout." The three can now appreciate even more than before just how dedicated Villarosa (or Miss Villarosa, as they respectfully prefer to call her) had to be in order to maintain the store's excellence. "She's done it alone all these years. Now it's up to us to take it to the next level."
What's their goal? They've already beefed up certain departments in an effort to keep up with community needs: Martin's focus has been on children's books, and the results are obvious: "People come in and tell us they had no idea there were that many children's books out there for the African-American community," she notes. "But it's out there -- you just have to know where to go. It's not like looking for dinosaur eggs." Plans are under way to develop a children's literature catalogue for release -- "our fingers are crossed," Martin says -- in July. Afzal, the daughter of CU professor and author Pat Raybon, says fiction is her particular passion. And Walker, a choral director and vocal music teacher at Manual High School, wants to see gospel sheet music on the shelves, alongside an expanded selection of Christian books. There's a new Men's Studies section to rival the store's Women's Studies shelves, and the trio also hopes to better emphasize African-American health issues. They foresee holding more community outreach events, such as health fairs, informal poetry readings and an ongoing "Local Heroes" event for kids, featuring people from the neighborhood -- a fireman, mailman or the woman next door -- one Saturday each month.
That's a lot, especially when combined with a constant effort to keep the shelves up-to-date in a volatile and specialized market. Hot titles, such as The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah and Randall Robinson's treatise The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks, can't ever be missing, but -- as avid reader Afzal points out -- neither should anything else. "This is the flagship: All others look to this store," she says. It's pretty clear the new owners are eager to uphold Villarosa's guiding vision.
Who comes in? "All kinds of people," Walker notes. "Which is great, because we're all people people." And, as if to emphasize his point, up walks local artist Jeff Hall, whose work hangs on Hue-Man's walls, with five-year-old daughter Simone, who declares, "I'm a writer." Later, Simone says with the same confidence, "I'm an artist, too." And even later, "I can jump rope." So there you have it: Hue-Man Experience attracts artists and artist/writers and jump-ropers extraordinaire. But at the same time the Halls are visiting, there's also a group from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., wandering through the aisles. "One advantage we have is knowing our customers," Walker says. "We all know this village, and that's the base of the store: It's much more for us than just selling a book."
Above all, the trio says, first-rate customer service and something else -- caring, perhaps -- are central to their success. "We're not here to make millions and millions of dollars," Walker says. "This is not a hit to make money and go. This store is not just bricks and mortar -- it's a labor of love. Our goal is to make it more visible and more viable: 'v' squared." They'll be pleased if Hue-Man's presence in the community simply enhances people's lives: "We'd like to think people are benefiting. It's just the way we were all brought up."