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The SunLit interview: Clara Villarosa’s Hue-Man Experience finds unexpected new life

The brand she launched in 1984 in Denver to advance books by and about people of color, and later revived in New York City, now will become a curatorial service within the Tattered Cover

Clara Villarosa (Provided by Dream Girl Film)

Clara Villarosa’s Hue-Man Experience Bookstore, founded in Denver’s Five Points neighborhood in 1984, stood as a hub of Black culture for 16 years. In the tough and competitive independent bookselling world, Villarosa also joined forces with now former Tattered Cover owner Joyce Meskis to create dialogue on racial issues through a conversation group called the Race Club.

But most of all, her store provided a welcoming space for book lovers of all ages, including a young Kwame Spearman, the new CEO of Tattered Cover who has fond memories of perusing the Hue-Man store as a kid. The connection would endure.

Villarosa sold her Denver store in 2000 — it would close for good three years later — and moved to New York City to be closer to her daughters and grandchildren. Though she planned to retire, she wound up launching the Hue-Man Bookstore & Cafe in Harlem backed by investors-partners and New York Knicks basketball stars Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson. When it closed in 2012, she figured that was the end of the Hue-Man brand.

She was wrong. Tattered Cover’s new ownership sought her out and proposed a revitalization of the Hue-Man Experience as a service, available to individuals, businesses and institutions, for curating books that encourage diversity and inclusion. Hue-Man Experience at Tattered Cover will point interested clients toward underrepresented titles and authors as well as seek out local talent.  

Shortly after lunch with a friend at New York’s BLVD Bistro to celebrate the end of her three-week waiting period after her second shot of coronavirus vaccine, Villarosa, 90, sat down earlier this week for a Zoom chat with SunLit about the Hue-Man legacy and its impending revitalization.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.


SunLit: First off, describe what this new arrangement with Tattered Cover will look like. Exactly what kind of service will Hue-Man Experience at Tattered Cover provide?

Clara Villarosa: Say there’s a school district, or perhaps a company decided that they want to give some books to their employees, and they’re interested in particular in some African American books. And so they could consult with us. Because it’s a partnership, the Tattered Cover can provide the books, but I can curate the list, I can listen to what their needs are and then, based on that, I can make some suggestions for them for their employees, or if they want to give books for a promotion of some kind.  And that would be a service available not just for companies, but also for schools, somebody in a classroom. Someone in a particular grade. And we can help if they want a particular subject matter.

SunLit: Interest in understanding race seems to have increased in recent months, in response to incidents like the George Floyd killing, the Black Lives Matter movement and other events. Have those happenings powered this effort to connect people with books that can point them toward answers?

Villarosa: Yes, because people have become more sensitive about it. Usually, something happens and then it blows over. Next, if something happens again, it creates an interest in African American authors and artists. What needs to really happen is to create an opportunity to talk about what is happening.

SunLit: Interest in understanding race seemed to spike last summer, in response to incidents like the George Floyd killing, the Black Lives Matter movement and other events. Have those happenings powered this effort to connect people with books that can point them toward answers?

And what you want the people to do is to have a conversation, provide the information through a conversation, because many times, even for African Americans, they may not be in a neighborhood where it’s integrated. Or suppose you’re working someplace, and you’re working with some African Americans, or people of color. Do you ever talk about anything other than something superficial? How do you ask a question without somebody thinking that you’re racist, when all you want is some information? So you just don’t do it.

One of the things I did with the Tattered Cover when I had the Hue-Man bookstore in Denver was Joyce (Meskis) and I worked together to bring customers from the Tattered Cover and the customers from the Hue-Man Experience together in small groups. It was a safe place where they could ask questions and not feel sort of stupid, knowing that all questions are good questions. But if you’re unfamiliar with the persons that you’re talking with you may not feel very comfortable. And you may need a moderator. So Joyce and I were moderators for the group.

Now, suppose we did that at the Tattered Cover again and suppose it was different groups, ongoing groups. And you had an opportunity to talk about Black Lives Matter. And you’re not talking with people like yourself, but you’re talking with others, so you get a different point of view.

SunLit: So how did this upcoming collaboration happen?

Kwame Spearman, CEO of Tattered Cover (Photo by Yumi Matsuo)

Villarosa: Well, someone sent me a press release or a newspaper article that talked about the new owners of the Tattered Cover. And I said, “Oh, an African American. I wonder if I should reach out to that person.” So I treated it just as information, and then Kwame (Spearman) contacted me through my daughters, on LinkedIn. And he said, “I’ve got an idea.” And so we talked about it and we began to think about it a bit broader than what I had done with Joyce before — and Kwame didn’t even know that we had done that. 

And so, here was an opportunity for us to work together, because he wanted a curated list of books. And here was also an opportunity for a way to think about how we create conversations and make bookstores a great place.

SunLit: I’d like to revisit a bit of history here. After you left Denver to retire to New York, why did you end up opening another bookstore with the Hue-Man brand?

Villarosa: Well, actually I wasn’t planning to open another bookstore. I was the retiree. And I was going to enjoy my grandchildren and enjoy New York, and someone approached me about opening a bookstore in Harlem. And I said, “Oh, heavens no, I have absolutely no interest at my age to be opening up a bookstore in a city that I just moved to.” 

And they said, would you mind if next time you come to New York you kind of look at the place we’re thinking about putting the bookstore. And it was the Harlem USA retail center. And so I walked around the neighborhood. Now, I had lived in Denver for 30 years, where I would say there were five Black people and me. I know that’s hyperbole, but you understand what I’m saying. 

So, here I was in Harlem and what did I see? African Americans walking up and down the street shopping. A very large area, lots of African Americans. And so I thought, maybe this might be a good place to do a bookstore. And it all came together with two of the New York Knicks players, Patrick Ewing and Larry Johnson. They said, “Great, we want to be a part of that.”

And so it came together and the pieces began to fall in line. And when that starts to happen, you say, maybe somebody is telling me something. The next thing I knew I was opening a bookstore in Harlem USA and Maya Angelou was there to open it.

SunLit: How did that experience differ from your original venture in Denver?

Villarosa: I love book selling. So it was a labor of love. And here was an opportunity for me to do a store from scratch. The original Hue-Man was two stories and it was four row houses. Hue-Man was in two and Akente Express was in the other two. Akente Express sold fabric, art pieces.

And so, it became sort of a cultural center, because one was books, and one was African artifacts, fabric, clothing, fine art prints. And so, that made sense. But now, I would be doing retail space — 4,000 square feet. So this was very different.

SunLit: Interesting that you had two NBA stars in Ewing and Johnson as partners in the New York venture. You also had a brief brush with a pro basketball while you were in Denver, didn’t you?

Villarosa: Yes. (Denver Nuggets star) Alex English came to my bookstore and asked, could he do a book signing. Now I wasn’t a basketball person. I didn’t know who he was. He said, “I’ve written a book (of poems).” And I said, who’s your publisher? He said, “Well, it’s self published.”

And then, my partner was standing there and realized that I didn’t realize who I was talking to. He kept sort of motioning to me, and I wasn’t paying attention. And then suddenly I said, “Oh, you’re tall, do you play basketball?” My partner wanted to absolutely die. And Alex took it very nicely. He said yes ma’am, because he’s Southern.

And then my friend came up and said, “Oh, how do you do, Mr. English. You’re a star!” And he’s looking at me, like Get it, girl?

SunLit: And you agreed to host a book signing.

Villarosa: We did. And then he offered me tickets to a game. I said, I don’t go to basketball games. My partner is like, “Oh, she doesn’t go very often, but….yes, I’d love tickets.” And so I went to the game, and at halftime, they said, “Poetry in Motion: Alex English will be at the Hue-Man bookstore.”

And after that he’d come in every once in a while to see just how I was doing. And he always said, “That was a great book signing I had at your store and I really appreciated your hosting me.” And once when he came he said he wanted to talk to me about something. He said, “I’m going to retire.”

SunLit: Really? Did he explain why?

Villarosa: He said, “I’m tired of running up and down the court and getting beat up all the time.” I hadn’t thought about it, but he said, “I’m tired of doing that.”

SunLit: In your own career, you’ve mentioned that the retail business took a toll on you. What happened to make you decide to exit that business?

Villarosa: I didn’t get younger, I got older. I said, OK, retail is not for me anymore. I am going to retire and stay retired. And so I retired. And (the New York store) stayed open for about 10 years, and then it closed. So yeah, I passed it on. And I really wasn’t wanting to resurrect that again.

SunLit: So the new Tattered Cover opportunity must have excited you to entice you to come out of retirement — again.

Villarosa: Right. And this is different, it’s not running a retail business, it’s very different. But I’m still doing something that I care about. I’m working in a place, in a space, where I know the product. I know the business. And it’s not retail full time.

SunLit: Will you once again have a presence in Denver, or will this be a long-distance relationship with additional help in Denver?

Villarosa: Well, I’m 90, so that has to be taken into consideration. I’m in good shape, I work out twice a week. But I have lived nine decades. We’ll be talking about who will be involved in the next week and who I’ll actually be working with.

But there will be a space in the Tattered Cover that will be called the Hue-Man Experience. And there will be a space for African American books under this particular brand. However, you don’t want to limit your African American titles to that one space in the store, you want to carefully curate throughout the store, based on subject matter, based on biographies and people. 

SunLit: I want to talk just a little bit about the Hue-Man brand. The name itself is very evocative, and I think people instinctively understand it’s meaning. But I always wondered if there was a story behind how you came up with the name.

Villarosa: OK, there is a story. I didn’t really want to call it by my name. And I didn’t know what to call it, but I had worked in human resources. I was vice president of human resources at United Bank of Denver. And I woke up one night, and I thought, “Human. Human. Hue. Man. Hue-Man.  And I ran to the dictionary and I looked up “hue.” And it’s shades and colors. Hue-Man, shades and colors of man.

SunLit: So it literally came to you in the middle of the night.

Villarosa: Yep. But it came from “human resources.” That’s what I started with — human, because I was trying to think of something to denote what it represented. Human came to me, and then I got to Hue-Man.

SunLit: What are your hopes for this new iteration of the Hue-Man Experience?

Villarosa: Certainly the curation, and the representation of the authors in the store. But I also want to think of a way to use the Tattered Cover and the Hue-Man brand to bring a coming together in a safe place to have a conversation and create some type of a model where we can take it into the community. Because I go back to the days when Joyce and I were doing that together. And it may be impossible, but I’m thinking now that perhaps within the Hue-Man Experience at Tattered Cover there can be that type of space.

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