Liberation Bookstore has been the intellectual anchor of central Harlem for the past 36 years. Now, Una Mulzac, the bookstore's sole proprietor throughout its entire existence, is preparing to retire, leaving the Liberation's future uncertain.
Located on the corner of 131st Street and Lenox Avenue, the Liberation occupies the bottom floor of a decrepit apartment building surrounded by fast-food restaurants, liquor stores, and bodegas. The front door is flanked by signs that scream a message from behind rusted metal bars: "If you don't know, learn ... If you know, teach!!!"
The windows and walls are plastered with posters and photographs of Malcolm X, W. E. B. Du Bois, Nelson Mandela, and other important African and African-American leaders. Flyers found throughout the small store reflect its long history and broad mission, from "Abolish Apartheid Now!" to "No War for Oil Company Profits." Shelves are lined with books on topics such as origins of African-American nationalism, white supremacy, and African history and culture.
It is clear, however, that for all of of the Liberation's endurance and strength of purpose, Harlem's oldest and most respected bookstore is on its last legs. Many of the books are very old, and some sections sit empty. There is a gaping hole in the ceiling that looks into the apartment above, and the rest of the heavily water-damaged ceiling tiles bulge like giant tumors.
Mulzac says that the ceiling and countless other problems with the store have been continually ignored by the building's managers. The building is managed by Imani Management Inc. by order of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. Soon after taking over the building in 1999, the new managers demanded a 700% rent increase. Mulzac rejected both the increase and the payment of any further rent until the deterioration of the space was addressed. After a year of non-payment, the building's owners took her to court, resulting in a settlement requiring a modest monthly rent increase and payment of the previous year's rent. Mulzac also agreed to vacate the space within two years.
Though none of the myriad plumbing or structural problems were fixed in the two-year interim period, Mulzac was given a notice of eviction. Feeling that Imani had not held up its end of the settlement, Mulzac refused to leave the store, and the community supported her. On the day Mulzac was supposed to be evicted, demonstrators rallied in front of the store with numerous drums and placards. The marshals that were rumored to have been sent to carry out the eviction never materialized, and the building's management has not communicated with Mulzac since. She stopped paying rent again in January 2003. She has not received further notice of eviction--but the heat has been cut off.
With the store falling apart around her, Mulzac is preparing to retire. "I'm not sure how much longer I'll be here," she said. "We'll see what next week brings."
Mulzac said she wants the store to continue in her absence with a new person at the helm, to "get justice for this bookstore." She cited her advanced age and the numerous problems with the building's management as the primary reasons for her imminent retirement. She has stopped ordering new stock and is preparing the store for appraisal.
Eddie Bruce, a customer for the past 30 years, said, "I come here buying things for the holidays--knick-knacks. And definitely the books. There's always flyers for everything that's happening. This bookstore has history."
He said he has loved the books he has purchased at the store, especially the works of Malcolm X. "If this store closed, it would be a devastating blow to the community. Everybody knows Liberation Bookstore."
"These stores just keep closing down, and there were very few to begin with," added Chris Johnson, CC '06. "Consequently we're left with fewer and fewer alternatives. With all the development that's happening in the area, there is no attempt to cater to the same audience, with places like HMV and H&M opening up."
Mulzac and the bookstore have received tremendous affection and support from the community. Since word of Mulzac's retirement has spread, she has received countless phone calls and letters of support, some from as far away as Barbados and England.
When asked about the store's possible closure and Mulzac's imminent retirement, Agnes Johnson, a customer of 22 years, said, "It would be a big loss. It's a wonderful bookstore. Anything you want for black history or politics, that's the place to go."