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Owner Vera Warren-Williams talks to a customer during a Save Our Store (SOS) sidewalk sale Saturday, June 10, 2017, at the Community Book Center on Bayou Road in New Orleans. Warren-Williams said she hopes to raise enough money to fix the roof and get a termite treatment for the building.

This weekend’s S.O.S. — Save Our Store — alarmed Bayou Road neighbors and African-American families who have relied upon Community Book Center for nearly 34 years.

Designed to raise much-needed cash by selling shelves and racks of excess inventory, the S.O.S. event felt especially dire to local readers because of its timing. Next week, the Maple Street Book Shop, a longtime literary destination in Uptown New Orleans, plans to shut its doors after 53 years.

For those who stopped by the African-American bookstore this weekend to buy a few items or offer support, the event was a reminder that the local stores that give life to New Orleans streetscapes can’t thrive if too many Orleanians opt to drive to big-box stores in Metairie or to load up online shopping carts.

For generations, Community Book Center has been a touchstone for families who bring young children here to pick out their books. It’s the kind of place where friends drop in with takeout food and eat it there, so that they can catch up with founder Vera Warren-Williams or longtime store manager Jennifer Turner.

It’s a home base for local writers such as Brenda Marie Osbey, Kalamu ya Salaam and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, and a home away from home for black literary stars from across the country, many of whom met Warren-Williams during the first decade and a half of Essence Festival, when she served as the festival’s book vendor.

Beyond books, thousands of people have found their lives enriched by conversations they’ve had at the center, said jewelry artist and frequent customer John “Dr. Foots” Booth, 72.

“Vera supplies knowledge to the community,” he said, noting that Warren-Williams has traveled to Africa and other far-off destinations and is well-informed on a broad range of topics, including politics and schools.

Teens who live nearby routinely stop after school to use the wi-fi, get help with homework or take a quick nap.

And it’s a magnet for Paris, 9, who visits the store with her sister Marli, 7, whenever their father, Manny King, is working down the street.

“They love it,” their dad said. “It’s one of their hangouts.”

He can’t imagine the neighborhood without it. “There would be only businesses around here,” he said. “There would be no community hub.”

Sometimes, the two girls help Mama Vera and Mama Jennifer clean or water the plants. When they’re done, they devour books.

“I just like reading,” Paris said.

“I like learning and reading,” Marli said.

That’s what makes this place indispensable, Booth said. “Without Vera, kids in New Orleans wouldn’t have known about black books. They would have known nothing about black culture,” he said. “She’s educated us.”

In the early 1980s, Warren-Williams, a substitute teacher, saw her students struggle to identify with heroes or historic figures who did not look like them. When she brought in books from home, she found that students were fascinated by them, because they featured African-American narrators, scientists and pioneers of all kinds and renowned historical kingdoms in Africa.

So, using $300 of her personal savings, she began to respond to the need she’d seen, by selling books written by and about people of African descent from her parents’ house in the Lower 9th Ward.

Growing up, her quest had been inspired by her godmother, public school principal Mildred Lyons Reese, now 98; by the black store owners and entrepreneurs she knew growing up in the Lower 9th Ward; and by classmates at McDonogh 35 Senior High School, who helped her form a black student union at the school to push for reforms such as an English curriculum that included black authors.

Since its formation, Community Book Center has moved around, from Poland Avenue in the 9th Ward to Ursulines Avenue in Treme to two different locations in the Broad Street corridor, including the center’s home of 14 years, a two-story building at 2523 Bayou Road where she sells books, art, clothing and fabric that reflect the culture of black New Orleans.

On Friday, Pearl Ricks, 27, stopped by wearing a skirt made from traditional West African wax-print fabric, which she purchased at Community Books, she said. Ricks, a transplant from Philadelphia, said the center has helped her meet people of similar interests. “If there’s an event here, I know that there will be people I want to meet,” she said.

Today, Warren-Williams, 58, is doing everything she can to reinvent the center in the face of a shifting economy and changing book industry.

She created an Airbnb apartment upstairs, to provide consistent revenue. She also received a sleek store makeover, thanks to the Albert Jr. and Tina Small City Center at the Tulane School of Architecture. She hopes that the store’s spiffed-up interior, complete with stadium seating, will increasingly attract rentals such as graduation and birthday parties, showers and other events.

Unlike other bookstores, such events are not that much of a stretch for Community Books, where families have long gathered informally. A blackboard leaning next to a bookshelf bears evidence from a recent baby shower: the names Mecca, written in pink chalk, and Malcolm, written in blue.

On Warren-Williams’ wish list are a retractable movie screen and a projector that she can use to show films of significance to the black community. She also hopes to create movable exhibits about black culture that can be set up in community centers and other places viewed as less cold and distant than formal museums.

Warren-Williams knows that what her center is experiencing is part of a national trend. In recent decades, she said, the number of black-owned bookstores across the country has dropped from more than 400 to fewer than 50.

But to understand what can be done, she’s spent more time in recent months reading bills than books, she said. She can sustain the center if she can raise about $100,000, she said. That’s enough to get out of debt, invest in new aspects of the business and fix roof damage from a past storm that wasn’t covered by insurance.

“It is critical; we are on life support,” she said. “But we’re not accepting our fate as dead.”