Before closing in 2008, Karibu Books was the nation’s largest black-owned chain of bookstores. Simba Sana, the company’s co-founder, outlines the rise and fall of his bookselling phenomenon in his new memoir, Never Stop.
Born Bernard Sutton, Sana grew up in inner-city Washington, D.C., where he worked his way out of poverty to become a successful businessman. The new memoir, which shares traits with Chris Gardner’s The Pursuit of Happyness, is a personal story about the struggle to “make it” in America.
I recently chatted with Sana via email about his memoir, the art of indie bookselling, and his views on Black Nationalism.
What inspired you to write Never Stop?
As I detail in the book, operating and expanding Karibu Books was my way of helping people, so it’s what I dedicated my life to. The later discoveries about my inner self, especially concerning love, set me on a different course and gave me something to share with people. I view this as the book’s purpose and why it was written.
One of the most striking things about your memoir is your unflinching honesty. You share some very intimate things, particularly about your sexual experiences. Why did you choose to share so much?
Again, I saw no choice in the matter. I seem to have a natural tendency for being open about my life, and this fit right in with the need for authenticity in sharing with readers what I see as a most important discovery. Love, for those fortunate to experience it, is something one generally has to back their way into. It certainly was that way for me. By this I mean, things I’d picked up during my upbringing led to certain habits and a way of thinking which ultimately had to be discarded. This was the most crucial step in my path to love and an important part of the story, so I wanted to be forthcoming about the personal things I had to overcome during my journey.
I found the story of Karibu Books very interesting. What was your biggest takeaway from your experience in indie bookselling?
The experience with Karibu taught me that dedicating oneself to something fully can be rewarding. I felt privileged to be able to earn a livelihood through providing literature and a meeting place for people in the communities we served. The downside to this, at least in my case, was the neglect of my inner development which led to a personal imbalance.
You talk about how you became a Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist. Has your allegiance to these movements changed in any way in the current political climate?
In the final section of my book, I give my reasons why putting aside Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist thought was necessary. I try not to root myself in anything that is subject to change or impermanence. Climates, be they political, religious or whatever, go through change just like the weather. When I began my search for love in earnest, unwittingly, I embarked on a seemingly never-ending quest for wisdom, something that is universal and timeless. This inner search is the only real movement, and such a journey eventually brings about a more pervasive impact on the world. I now think that working to be your best self is a blessing that connects you with others.
What kinds of books did you recommend as a book seller? Has that list changed?
My recommended reading list has definitely undergone some changes. Before, my list would have been filled with political and historical books such a Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro and Chancellor Williams‘ The Destruction of Black Civilization. Today, it consists of books with a more inward focus. Freedom From The Known and On God by Jiddu Krishnamurti would be up there as well as any book by Ramana Maharshi. Great adventure stories such as Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings belong there as well. Any of Baldwin’s non-fiction works and The Autobiography of Malcolm X are holdovers from the old list.
Despite some major setbacks, your book ends on a hopeful note. What’s next for you?
My hope is to be able to speak to people about some of the discoveries detailed in the book. I enjoy engaging with people, so if the book somehow opens the door for that then great. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, so the need to be involved in some type of business venture is always present. I’ll have to see how things play out.
NONFICTION – MEMOIR
Never Stop by Simba Sana
Published September 12, 2017
Simba Sana is the co-founder of Karibu Books, the largest black-owned bookstore chain in the United States before closing in 2008, and the author of Never Stop, a memoir. Sana graduated from Mount Saint Mary’s University with a double major in accounting and business and holds two master’s degrees: one in African Studies from Howard University, and one in liberal arts from St. John’s College.
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Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Electric Literature, Fiction Writers Review, Nurture, Entropy, The Rupture, Necessary Fiction, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.