Thursday, July 22, 2004

On Wednesday, Faye Williams was crying for help. Yesterday, the relentless owner of Sisterspace and Books on historic U Street NW was singing hallelujahs.

“Good news from Sisterspace — miracles do happen,” Ms. Williams said. “Thank God, thank God, thank God.” Earlier in the week, Ms. Williams was trying to rally support for the July 31 “S.O.S.,” (Save Our Sisterspace and Books) fund-raiser at the Lincoln Theatre to preserve this important community cultural institution at 1515 U St. NW. By week’s end, Ms. Williams had received a substantial pledge from an undisclosed customer that could provide enough funds to bring the struggling store one step closer to staying in its present location.

That’s if the marshals from D.C. Superior Court’s landlord and tenant division don’t arrive before the fortuitous funding is firmly in hand.

Sisterspace and Books, which specializes in books for and by black women, has been in its U Street location for a dozen years. However, Ms. Williams and her partner, Cassandra Burton, have been fighting for the survival of the business as a hub of black culture and literacy for a few years.

“The writ [for eviction] is still alive,” Ms. Williams said yesterday. “The marshals can come anytime between now and August 8. But we’re not packing up or going anywhere.”

“We are being guided by the spirits and examples of [freedom fighters] Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, Winnie Mandela, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.”

Sisterspace could be evicted from the four-story white building, which was once owned by a prosperous black printer, as early as today because the owners lost their protracted lease dispute earlier this month. A Superior Court judge ruled that the owners did not have a renewed lease and released the stay on their eviction.

Since word of the store’s plight became public, Ms. Williams and Ms. Burton have received an outpouring of support. Committees have been formed to handle fund raising and research, and there is also a committee called the Prayer Warriors.

To date, Ms. Williams said, they have received either pledges or donations totaling $30,000. Homeowners have offered to take out home equity loans to the tune of $200,000. And, D.C. Council member Jim Graham jumped in not only to negotiate with the reticent landlord but also to work with the city to get more than $200,000 in city economic development funds should the two women ever be allowed to purchase the building.

“We all want to see Sisterspace own the building, but the [owners are] not very encouraging,” said Mr. Graham, Ward 1 Democrat. He said negotiations with the “totally unreasonable” trustee for the property owner have been “most difficult,” mainly because the trustee is in Illinois.

“If you’re in Illinois, you don’t care about a black woman’s bookstore being thrown out in the street,” Mr. Graham said. “It will be a sad day for me if that happens, but if I were in Illinois, I’d go to the barber or the movies.” He recently helped settle a similar landlord-tenant dispute with Big Wash, a minority-owned company in Ward 1, and Horning Bros., a local landlord, despite pending eviction orders in that case.

“We really need to spend resources to protect our traditional businesses who are faced with ever-rising rents in red-hot real estate markets,” Mr. Graham said. “The city needs a commitment to maintaining commercial diversity as well as residential diversity.”

U Street, for example, is going to look like Connecticut Avenue, which is fine for Connecticut Avenue, but “I want U Street to look like U Street,” Mr. Graham said.

“Fortunately, I checked and there are funds available [to help Sisterspace] and that’s good news,” Mr. Graham said.

Meanwhile, the fury for funding continues.

Early yesterday morning, Ms. Williams said, “a customer, who is involved in a socially responsible investment group” said she would provide the necessary funding up to $875,000 to offer the landlord’s attorney, who has maintained publicly that the building is not for sale. Details of the promised funding are scheduled to be released later today.

And, the July 31 “S.O.S.” fund-raiser, which will feature author and actress Bertrice Berry, is still needed as seed money for the potential purchase, to keep the store afloat and to pay some debts, Ms. Williams said.

Longtime Washingtonians coming through the store said they think Sisterspace is symbolic of the “what is happening throughout the city,” as once-neglected neighborhoods are being redeveloped and property prices are skyrocketing. They worry that black businesses and families are being driven out by gentrification.

“We deserve the right to buy this building and stay on U Street,” said Ms. Williams. She stresses that their fight is not about rent but about legal machinations designed to displace Sisterspace.

Gentrification is an emotional as well as economic issue in the District. Indeed, incentives should be enacted that provide assistance to longtime residents and merchants who want to preserve and maintain their homes and their businesses if they so choose.

“We’re still here, we still believe in miracles, and we still believe in the power of the people,” Ms. Williams said.

• For information on the July 31 event, call Sisterspace and Books at 202/332-3433, log on to, or e-mail

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