I helped __ll___, guide the weight back on to the bar. Last set, he told me he was a store manager at Doubleday Books. He sat up straight and scooted to the end of the bench.
"To tell you the truth," he said, "my store doesn't even have an African-American section."
"Really?" I said. "What store do you manage?"
I was confused. Phipps Plaza is in the center of Buckhead, Atlanta's ritziest shopping district, center of Atlanta's buying power. And here he was, a Black store manager with no Black section. If he wasn't on Black authors' side, who would be? A Black writer myself, I felt bile rising.
All this time I thought your name was __ll___. Maybe I shoulda been calling you Tom.
I put him on the witness stand. "You mean to tell me that you're a Black manager at the Phipps store - which I'm sure is one of your largest volume stores in the Southeast - and you don't have a Black section." I raised my brow.
"Naw, we had to get rid of it," he said. "Because of theft."
"Let me explain. We do have African-American books in the store, but we had to scatter them around using their cross-reference. For example, Toni Morrison is in Fiction; Maya Angelou is in Poetry; and this new brotha that was on Oprah with his book on Down Low brothas? - he's in Gay Lit.
"You gotta be kidding."
"No lie. Your cousins kept comin into the store and stealin the books. We tried all sorts of things - strategic mirrors, moving the books to a shelf all the way in the back of the store...
"And magnetic security tags aren't cost-effective. So the books just kept disappearing."
"And the Phipps store... of all stores?"
Black authors can't sell their books because Black people are stealing them?
This wasn't the conversation I was planning to open. I piled more plates on the bar.
"So, Doubleday is owned by Barnes & Nobles. And so is B. Dalton's, right?"
"So, what about your stores in Black neighborhoods? You're not telling me that B. Dalton's at South DeKalb doesn't have a Black section."
"The store is closed."
"Due to high theft.
"Give you another example. Northlake? Just closed, too. For the same reason."
"Get the f*ck outta here!"
"And the store at Lenox. It closed a year ago. It's now a Waldenbooks."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"And here I was thinking Black folk don't read."
"But do understand, they're not stealing Toni Morrison and Alice Walker," he said. "It's Omar Tyree, Tupac, Zane... Couldn't keep them on the shelves."
There has to be some other answer.
"So you're telling me with all of the brainpower at Barnes & Nobles Corporate - and all of the other urban markets - they couldn't come up with a solution?"
But before I could get it out of my mouth, I knew the answer.
"Listen to your question. Barnes & Nobles? Corporate?
"You think they really care about Black stores? About Black books?
"All they care about is what any business cares about: the bottom line."
And my own bottom line was that I refused to accept this as another Us vs. The Man scenario.
Having had enough politics for my Independence holiday, I lay myself back down on the bench. I stared at the black iron weights above me, at his brown face above that. I took a deep breath and said all that there was left to say:
"Yo bruh, I need you to give me a spot."