Rosalind Oliphant: A Legacy of Literature

Most of us can’t call Pulitzer Prize-winner Leonard Pitts to ask about his latest work, or  have best-selling author Bernice McFadden recommend our event to Terry McMillan, or convince sister Souljah to add Austin to her book tour, but Rosalind Oliphant can. 

It’s been nearly 25 years since Rosalind first recognized a hunger for more culturally-specific literature within Austin’s African American community. Her response was to open Folktales, a bookstore that specialized in literature by and about African Americans.

Located on Nueces Street, Folktales was open for seven years, between 1992 and 1999. These days, you’re likely to find Rosalind at the Austin African American Book Festival, which will celebrate its tenth year on Jun. 25, at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center.

Austin’s Black bookstore

Creating a Black bookstore in Austin in the 1990s might seem strange to some, but to Rosalind it was a natural extension of her upbringing. “I was around people who had take-charge attitudes, so when there was a problem, in my mind was: How can we get creative and make some things happen? That was really the impetus, I think, when I decided to open a bookstore.”

When she started her business, publishers and booksellers didn’t see Black people as a viable market for literature, but Rosalind knew of Black bookstores around the country that were making a difference in their communities. She started laying out the blueprint for what her shop could be.

Copyright DHills Photogtaphy
Photo by Jeff Sims

In her first year, she sold over $100,000 in books, but Folktales wasn’t only about sales. Rosalind brought in nationally recognized authors like Walter Mosley, E. Lynn Harris, Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks. She also had reading camps, book clubs, lecture series, and lunch meetings. The Black Women’s Literary Society, Brothers and Sisters Book Club, Teen Read and Rap Group were created and had meetings at her shop. Folktales hosted children’s story time on the first Saturday and the Lunch Bunch on the second Tuesday. “I look at some of the old newsletters from Folktales and think: How did we have the energy to do all of this,” Rosalind says.

I look at some of the old newsletters from Folktales and think: How did we have the energy to do all of this?

Whether due to the activity, sales or reputation, other retailers noticed Folktales’ success. By the late 90s, the market for African American books was growing. Larger booksellers and big box stores started carrying these culturally specific titles in greater volume. They could demand better prices from publishers and offer books to consumers at a lower cost. “People started asking: Why should I buy the book from you, when I can go to Walmart and get it for 25 percent less,” Rosalind recalls.

Although she understands that everyone wants to save money, Rosalind laments that many people didn’t understand that patronage, sometimes at a higher prices, is what’s needed to support small independent booksellers. Folktales, like other independent bookstores, couldn’t compete.

Rosalind closed the store, went to graduate school, and became a teacher, but books were always an expression of who she was. She remembers cleaning out the book room at the high school where she taught and starting a book club for kids.

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From selling, to celebrating

When Rosalind was out in the community, people told her they missed the opportunities to engage with other readers, and to connect with writers and authors as they had at her bookstore.

She missed it, too. She needed to figure out how to re-frame the work she’d done with Folktales and turn it into “something that would be important, but that would not require overhead and all the mechanics and technicalities of having a full-fledged bookstore.”

Inspired by the success of the Harlem Book Fair, Rosalind decided a book festival would be a great way to keep the literary momentum going within the community. She sought the help of bookseller Evelyn Martin-Anderson to create a showcase for African American literature. Martin-Anderson was already producing literary events. The two collaborated to create the African American Book Festival.

Martin-Anderson has moved on to other projects, but Rosalind went on to enroll donors and many volunteers in her vision. Together, they produced a series of festivals that showcased Pulitzer Prize winners, best-selling authors, and award-winning historians.

This year will mark the 10th annual Austin African American Book Festival. It will take place on Jun. 25, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center.

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5 Comments

  • Great article! I still miss Folktales and admire Rosalind for having the courage and drive to open up an African American Bookstore in Austin. I still remember the great bookclub meetings we had there. And you know I’m jealous of the access she has to such wonderful authors! It’s really good to see the spirit of Folktales still lives on in the Austin African American Book Festival!

  • I remember Ms Rosalind from the AKA domestic travel tour in 1981. She is informative, well read and quite an organizer. We became extended family and we have remained friends through the years. I remember when she explored her opportunity to begin the festival. I am sooooo proud of all of you who embraced the dream and continue the spirit of folktales. Mildred Patterson Kernersville, NC

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