Zawadi Books: Longtime Black-Owned Business Boosts Reading

Buffalo is home to one of the longest-operated independent black-owned businesses in the country, Zawadi Books. Kenneth and Sharon Holley have plied their trade as booksellers for over 40 years, in an earlier incarnation as Harambee Books, and for the past five years, under the name “Zawadi”—Swahili for “gift”—at 1382 Jefferson Ave. Hours are Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 12 – 4 pm.

Zawadi Books owners, Sharon and Kenneth Holley

Situated in the front of a house on the East Side’s main commercial thoroughfare, the bookstore is crammed full of tomes and artistic treasures “that are by and about people of African descent,” according to Sharon, a former librarian. In fact, she and her husband of 45 years, Kenneth, met while both were working at a local public library. She advanced in the library system, and he became an administrator for a community services agency. While working full-time at their other jobs, the Holleys managed to indulge their passion for books—and service to the Black community—with a little side book business. 

They raised three daughters—Nzinga, Asantewa, and Makeda—along the way, enlisting their help as they visited other cities for such events as Juneteenth, traveling vendors setting up pop-ups where their books were on display, for sale to a wider readership.

“The girls hauled and unpacked books, set up displays, and learned to count money,” Kenneth recalls. It was a fun family adventure, and they learned, as he did from an early age, to enjoy reading. Though it was once an illegal activity for Blacks to read, books were always coveted, and sometimes purloined, if necessary. 

“Reading has always been a part of our history,” he notes. “I grew up in a family of readers. I remember my mother would buy bags of books from the Goodwill store for my father to read. I saw the pleasure he took from books.” When they had their own family, Kenneth and Sharon continued the tradition of reading for entertainment as well as education. “We always had books in our home,” says Sharon. Now the proud grandparents of six, the Holleys continue to share that love with young ones. Holley offspring are well-acquainted, for example, with the Kwanzaa (the annual celebration of African-American culture) tradition of the gift of a book.

Surviving the pandemic has been a challenge for most businesses, and the Holleys closed their doors, from March to July, in 2020. Their online presence was practically nonexistent, but they did see a surge in phone orders from mid-March through April, and continued on with curbside pickup. Many of the titles they stock—from histories to classics of Black literature which are hard to find or out-of-print— “we were carrying before Black Lives Matter ever started,” notes Kenneth.  

In addition to current popular fiction and non-fiction, Zawadi shoppers can find poetry, genealogy, cookbooks, young adult books, a local authors section, greeting cards, artwork, T-shirts, and seasonal items, as well as an array of strikingly-illustrated books for children “that give positive images—where they can see themselves,” adds Sharon, who is also an accomplished storyteller. She and her colleague Karima Amin founded Tradition-Keepers: Black Storytellers of Western New York.

Zawadi Books is part of a national Black Bookstore Collective, which has been meeting regularly on ZOOM. Newer owners are looking at this as a business, their primary source of income, and that’s fine with Kenneth, but it was never the Holley way. Their store functions as a community center, and they are grateful for the support they’ve received over these many years. They do have plans to use some of the stimulus funds coming their way as minority-owned business owners to upgrade their online presence.

And they will continue to do what they do best, pass on a love of reading to a younger generation, and encourage folks to keep reading. As official Zawadi t-shirts proclaim: What you read matters.

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