Camden bookstore owner hopes history is part of his next chapter
CAMDEN — Talking with Larry Miles, owner of La Unique Books and Cultural Center, is like listening to history.
And not just the history of Camden, the city where La Unique has been since 1991, although Miles has known mayors from Arnold Webster to Randy Primas to Dana Redd. Miles is a student of African history, of African American history, and La Unique is more than a place to buy books by Black authors and thinkers.
It's a place to learn about history — but, Miles fears, La Unique might soon be history.
"It's been tough, really tough," Miles admitted, to keep the store open in the midst of a global pandemic that temporarily closed stores, drove consumers even further into online shopping and ended the readings and events he once hosted.
The 88-year-old, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, worries that "my work here isn't finished," but he's certain he's got at least 13 years left to do it.
"That's right!" he answered. "I'm going to be 101, 102, at least. I have time."
And he's trying to make the most of it.
Miles has started a GoFundMe campaign, looking to raise $20,000 to not only keep the store going, but to revitalize it, replenishing his inventory, making repairs to the building he owns and creating a place where future generations in Camden can learn about the culture and history that shaped their lives.
The 6th Street storefront offers books by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Henry Louis Gates, Walter Mosely and Sister Souljah, Barack and Michelle Obama and Ben Crump. There are Qurans and Bibles, African-inspired jewelry, educational videos and children's books.
Behind the storefront, Miles owns an impressive collection of African artifacts and works of art: a shield made from an elephant ear, ornate hand-woven fabrics, pottery and statues that are hundreds of years old. Downstairs, the building holds a reading room with a kitchenette where book clubs used to meet. In the back of the building, there's a cozy, 70-seat theater where Miles used to host film screenings, poetry readings and open mics, all before COVID-19 put a stop to most indoor gatherings.
Miles' troubles began before the pandemic, though. He's had to refinance the mortgage on the building, where he lived until problems with his legs and back made climbing stairs too difficult. (He moved recently to Pennsauken, in a place that's better suited to his mobility.) Lower sales at a time when independent bookstores are fighting to survive against online giants, big box stores, iPads and Kindles means less money to replenish stock.
And, Miles admitted, he's been frustrated at a lack of support from the city, particularly the school district and its institutions of higher education. He'd prefer they use his store to supply students with books rather than Barnes & Noble or other big booksellers. He's offered his services for author appearances and signings, and wants to host younger students to view the art and artifacts he has on display.
Camden resident Christoff Lindsey called the store, collection and theater "astounding."
"This is why Camden has to be discovered in layers," added Lindsey, a lifelong Camdenite. "There's a grand past. There is a future here, too, but such a great, great past. And people don't know about it."
A longtime dream of Miles' is to open a museum in the City of Camden, one that can house the artifacts he's collected over the years, and can instill in Camden's youth a sense of the history of their city, their roots in places from Africa to Europe to the Americas.
"Schools are not using the tools available to them to teach history," Miles asserted. "I'm a firm believer in teaching not just American history and African American history, but also African history — so you know where you came from, so you know how you got here."
Miles, an Air Force and Army veteran, is pretty clear he's felt a calling to do more than turn a profit for his business.
"I've always felt what I do is for the community," he said. "Camden needs to have not only place to learn about African American history — it needs a place to learn Camden's history. There is a lot of history, American history, here in Camden but it's not talked about.
"The city needs to give the people, give the young people especially, something to be proud of, and let it be known to them that there's so much to be proud of here."
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. She's called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at email@example.com, on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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