The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore: If You Build It, Will They Come?

Child at The MLK Jr. National Memorial’s Bookstore

Seven different conversations with seven different friends: What are you doing this weekend?

Me: Thinking about stopping by the bookstore of the MLK Jr. National Memorial?

All seven friends who asked: The MLK Memorial has a bookstore?!

Me: Uh. Yeah. It’s located next to the Memorial. Directly across the street. 

Their Response: I had no idea. 

The Unfortunate Point: Four friends had visited the Memorial and completely missed the store. The other three had not visited the monument as of yet and had no clue the store existed. 

Much has been said about the newest addition to the National Mall’s tribute to a great American leader and hero – from the now removed wall inscription that took one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quotes out of context to the statue’s likeness of King not being a more accurate likeness of King.

And while the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial is not the first National Park Service (NPS) site to receive a wave of criticism for its design and inscriptions – the World War II Memorial, the Franklin Delano Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial are all members of this club – it’s one of a small number of the National Mall-Tidal Basin properties to have a dedicated standalone bookstore.

The Lincoln Memorial has a bookstore inside its walls, but it’s small enough to fit in the palm of Lincoln’s hand. The statue of Lincoln, not the actual man.

With that being said, along with the conversations I had on seven different occasions this past week, I wondered why more attention has not been paid to bookstore of the the first National Mall property to be dedicated to an African American. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Ambiguous Architecture: Perhaps it’s because the building is so nondescript. At first glance, the store’s bland metal exterior makes it look like storage or work space for the Park Service staff dedicated to maintaining the Memorial’s pristine grounds. And while its large windows should make it easy for passersby to see the inside the store, its location always seems to have a sun glare that reflects the outside of the store more so the inside.
  • Banished Branding: The building lacks actual signage – permanent or temporary – designating it as the official bookstore of the The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Not even one of these saying “Get Ya MLK Jr Books Here”.

However, for anyone who is lucky enough to actually go inside store, they’ll be greeted with an array of close to 400 books, DVDs, posters and other items that communicate the direct words of Martin Luther King Jr., explore his life’s work or emulate his teachings of nonviolence, social justice and racial equality. The books range from King’s Strength to Love and Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  to The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas and elementary educational materials on the civil rights movement like This Is the Dream

When I visited the bookstore on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it was of course crowded and I was overjoyed by the number of adults and children browsing and buying books  – here’s a link to the photos I took of the store – but I worried what would be become of the store’s foot traffic after this holiday weekend.

Yes, the store is operated by the same independent contractor that manages all the National Park Service bookstores, but the Memorial’s NPS Web page still lacks information about its exact location and hours, and the foundation dedicated to the Memorial’s creation and funding merely lists information about contributing to the store’s donor wall on its Web site – nothing about the store’s vast inventory of books and other items for sale.

Memorial visitors who miss a chance to join one of the NPS Ranger talks that are started outside the bookstore, might also miss an opportunity to become aware of the store’s existence and actually visit it. Visiting the Memorial is great, but reading and learning about King, and understanding his words and lifestyle is more memorable. More should be done to promote the store.

  • Signage: Adding a sign or banner that’s either affixed to the building’s roof or side exterior, and clearly identifies it as the Memorial’s bookstore, will give it more prominence. If that’s not possible for logistical or economical reasons, a simple sidewalk sign noting the store’s existence and hours will also increase the store’s visibility. To draw in children and families, add some balloons.
  • Literary Support: Authors releasing new books that explore the historical contributions of minorities, analyze the teachings of social and civil activists, or promote a free and just society should make the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial bookstore a preeminent stop on their tours, talks and book signings.

If you build it, they might come, but any bookstore worth patronizing needs a genuine spotlight shone on its existence – not just the Memorial across the street. The bookstore should serve as complement to the Memorial, not an aside. 

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