More than your local book store

Charisma Wooten performs as Jackie “Moms” Mabley on Feb. 25 at Robert Harper Books. Photo by Mark Goodson.

BY MARK GOODSON — Charisma Wooten changed out of her Jackie “Moms” Mabley wardrobe and joined the audience in the back of Robert Harper Books after her Feb. 25 performance. “This is better than Blues Alley,” she said of the Riverdale book store and concert venue, comparing it to Georgetown’s jazz club. The intimate setting felt more like an artist’s salon than a licensed auditorium.

Wooten’s play “A Night with Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley,” once nominated for the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play, is a medley of puns and turns of phrase. Jackie “Moms” Mabley, the stage name of Loretta Mary Aiken, was a 20th-century African-American standup comedian. In the play, Mabley, an elderly woman — a character you’d imagine as a permanent fixture on a stoop or porch in her yellow bucket hat, Sunday dress and slippers — delivers jokes and prognostications that are rooted in racial history and resonate with today’s racial issues. As Mabley, Wooten’s eyes lit like high beams; she delivered punchlines and employed physical humor which kept the room laughing throughout the performance.

Lying over the piano of her accompanist Luther, played by Everett Williams, was an upside-down American flag. After the show, Wooten, a military widow, informed the audience that the flag was intentionally placed in that manner as an officially recognized signal of distress. The play unearthed issues of American race and strife in both humorous and heavy doses, from a satiric and operatic civil rights song to a chilling rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”

Wooten, a Washington Area Music Award Nominee for Best Cabaret Artist, and Williams will be performing gospel at the bookstore every Sunday at 2 p.m. beginning March 19.

For Robert Harper Books, March 1 marked one year in operation. A patron of the “Moms” Mabley show and Hyattsville resident, Bessie Smith, said, “I have always enjoyed the gathering of neighbors [and] friends, as well as meeting new people there. Their book store is a wonderful addition to our community.”

Robert Harper, the book store’s owner, is doing anything and everything he can to attract people to his store, including hosting concerts, book signings and poetry readings. From exhibiting the local artwork for sale by the Hyattsville Community Art Alliance to creating calendars jam-packed with local and regional artists, Harper’s ambition is to become a creative outlet for the community.

Other events on the store’s Facebook page confirm Harper’s hopes to be a local center for the arts. Sid Gold, a Washington Writers’ Publishing House author, heads Harper Book’s “Third Saturday” readings, which have also brought poet Laura Fargus and novelists Eric D. Goodman and Heather Rounds to Riverdale. Folk rocker Annette Wasilik plays with touring musicians in a series of “Riverdale Rail” concerts. Stephen Wade, a Grammy-nominated folk historian and banjo player, performed on March 2. Authors Tom Glenn and Richard Morris will read excerpts from and sign books on March 17.

Along with a growing slate of events is a growing inventory of books.

“I have more books than I know what to do with,” said Harper after the Wooten performance.

Donations and consignments have given Harper a massive inventory. The books are there, the artists are performing, the poets are reading — the only problem is sales.

“The problem is people aren’t buying books,” he said.

Harper said he believed that providing the community with a local book store would be profitable. Not only is Robert Harper Books proximate to the Arts District, but the next closest bookstore is Books-A-Million in Beltsville Plaza, which offers none of the cultural enrichment featured by Robert Harper Books.

Harper said he is taking a loss each month on the rent alone, not including employee wages and store upkeep costs. Harper said he hopes that store events will lead to more sales of his large collection of books, LPs, CDs and DVDs, both in-store and online via the Robert Harper Books Facebook page.

A community — particularly an arts district — is fortunate to have a bookstore or a venue for the arts and intimate performances. In Robert Harper Books, the Hyattsville area has both — for now.