“Nerdy Goodness”— How an Annual Bookstore Trip Is Inspiring Young Black Scholars

Guest post by Joycelyn K. Moody, Sue E. Denman Distinguished Chair in American Literature, University of Texas at San Antonio, and Howard Rambsy II, Associate  Professor, Department of English Language and Literature, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville

“As part of our scholastic adventure to New York, we journeyed to an intellectual mecca. Located in a cozy area in Manhattan at the corner of 12th Street and Broadway stands the Strand Bookstore—a perfect source of inspiration for our burgeoning group of scholars. The bookstore showed us infinite possibilities of research and creativity.”

G. Cherrelle Denwiddie (then of Fisk University) and Alysha Griffin (then of Spelman College) coauthored this recap of our 2010 visit to the Strand Bookstore. Denwiddie and Griffin were two of the eight members of our inaugural cohort of the African American Literatures and Cultures Institute (AALCI).

Each June since 2010, perusing books at the Strand has become one of the most memorable activities for participants in our institute, which is based at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). It forms part of the AALCI annual visit to New York City, a four-day intellectual excursion that includes trips to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, the African Burial Ground National Monument in lower Manhattan, and the Brooklyn Museum.

The Strand is an historic independent new and used bookstore that carries the slogan “home to 18 miles of books.” It was founded in 1927 by Benjamin Bass and remains family-owned. One reason we immerse the Fellows in this heady “atmosphere filled with fiction lovers, sci-fi geeks, and Shakespeare fiends,” as 2014 Fellow Josalynn J. Smith (currently at Washington University in Saint Louis) described it, is the thrilling opportunity the bookstore allows to be part of a large, diverse crowd of serious readers.  Smith observed the pleasure of being among people with “a passion for knowledge and creativity—attributes essential to crafting our own works and studies.”

For a generation of digital natives who have primarily encountered bookstores online, the experience of visiting a brick-and-mortar site packed with used books is remarkable. Many of the AALCI Fellows are visiting the Strand, or any large used bookstore, for the first time and gaining a new appreciation for the experience of bookstore browsing. As Kimberly McClurg (now a UTSA graduate student) noted when she visited the Strand as part of our 2010 cohort, “Never have I seen such a diverse collection of books under one roof.” For Amber Walker (a senior at UTSA), it’s a space brimming with “nerdy goodness.”

As 2014 Fellow Candace Chambers (currently enrolled at Jackson State University) assessed, “The Strand is a compelling, universal center of intellectual power.” She added, “An English Education major should visit the Strand Bookstore because it provides a wealth of resources to enhance one's critical thinking skills through the wide selection of books and other educational resources.”

Our visit to the Strand offers a useful, fascinating alternative to undergraduate students’ typical virtual and computer-based research methods. Notably, many fellows purchase a book or two, and all exhibit a high regard for the printed book—a treasured commodity once denied enslaved black people.

For the three weeks prior to our visit to New York City and the Strand, the Fellows cover a Black Studies-based curriculum concentrating on African American literary art, culture, history, and politics. The reading materials are selected to create awareness of many lines of scholarship the Fellows might pursue, particularly as future graduate students. So, often, they head immediately to the Strand’s Black Studies section, eager to observe its offerings of books by black authors.

Since 2010, we have led five different cohorts, totaling 37 students, to the Strand. Our routine of exposing groups of students to an expansive bookstore empowers them to define scholarly activity beyond acts of solitary reading and writing exercises. Indeed, our time at the Strand suggests that the work of young scholars involves moving through aisles of bookshelves and rubbing shoulders with dozens of other book seekers. The work of young scholars, they are inclined to believe, involves moving from floor to floor of a bookstore and becoming delightfully overwhelmed by multitudes of books. We have been pleased year after year observing the students making all kinds of discoveries as they lose themselves in the bookstore’s “nerdy goodness.”
       



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