For 40 years, Paul Coates has lived the highs and the lows at the helm of Black Classic Press and BCP Digital Printing.
As usual, each day is viewed the same.
“It’s always a good day to print,” said Coates, who founded the press and printing operation in 1978 not long after his stint leading the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party.
“Even more so than the publishing company, one of the great accomplishments that comes out of this 40 years is the printing company,” he said.
“There are many publishing companies, but there’s still only one Black book printing company in this country that I know of and that’s Black Classic Press,” he said, adding that, as a student of the printing, he believes he’d be aware if there were another Black printing company.
Like with any conversation with Coates, it’s hard not to pose at least one question about his son, Ta-Nehisi, the award-winning journalist and author who’s earned global acclaim for his work.
“I didn’t foresee it and I know he didn’t foresee himself having the success he’s had,” Coates said of his son.
When reminded that he’s often referred to as “Ta-Nehisi’s dad” rather than Ta-Nehisi being referred to as his son, Coates laughed.
“The moon has been eclipsed by the sun, but it’s all good,” he said.
Coates has a lot on his plate as he celebrates the 40th anniversary of his companies where books and writings are available from such icons as W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson and Walter Mosley.
Literary lovers can also find such gems like “Fidel & Malcolm X: Memories of a Meeting,” where they can read the compelling account of the historic Harlem meeting between Fidel Castro and Malcolm X and the revolutionary movements they spawned.
Coates’ company has been devoted to publishing obscure and significant works by and about individuals of African descent.
Black Classic Press specializes in republishing works that are out of print.
“We began publishing because we wanted to extend the memory of what we believe are important books that have helped in meaningful ways to shape the Black diasporic experience and our understanding of the world,” Coates said.
He said he owes his success to those who have “reached out and lent a hand along the way.”
Those include the “three elders” who gave their support, John G. Jackson, John Henrik Clarke and Yosef ben-Jochannan, Coates said.
However, it was another man — named Deaver Smith — whom Coates said may have inspired him more than others.
“Dozens of people stand out, but the one person that continues to really stand out for me is Deaver Smith,” Coates said.
In 1906, Smith opened Deaver Smith & Sons, a coffee, tea and spice shop along Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore.
By the time Coates was born and had grew up, he became a regular customer.
“I used to pass by it all the time and get these wonderful aromas of coffee, spices, teas,” he said. “The man who founded the company worked with his son and I went in there and asked whether it was Black owned, and the son said yes.
“He founded the company in 1906 and it looked like it,” Coates said. “It was dark with bags of spices all over, the floors were wooden, the cash register was old, the phone was old and the man who ran it was old.
“But the reason why it became my biggest inspiration was because here was this Black-owned spice business on Pennsylvania Avenue and he’d been there for so long and he’d been successful right in the middle of a city who had one of the biggest spice companies in the world, McCormick,” he said. “He competed against McCormick in their own territory and he survived.”
Overcoming racism and oppression is as much part of business as it is everyday life, Coates said.
“Pretty soon, you ignore it,” he said. “I think you almost have to ignore it because you must be in a space of doing what you do. At the same time, it can serve as fuel for you; you know the conditions are not right, but I don’t know how much of it you can focus on because it would probably drive you crazy.”
Coates said he didn’t envision his own success, particularly in the publishing and printing business.
“I didn’t foresee it at all, although coming out of the Black Panther Party led to this because what I did do in the Black Panther Party was recognized the importance of education and recognized the importance of community being responsible for education,” he said. “I recognized that we have the right to learn about ourselves, the right to write about ourselves and read about ourselves so it was a desire to continue that type of work.”
His foray into publishing and printing began by working with imprisoned African-American men and women. It was an effort to educate them, he said.
Today, publishing, printing and the Black Press remains vital to the African-American community, Coates said.
“It’s just like Deaver Smith — we still have to do our own thing and we should do our own thing,” he said. “No matter how outsized we are, we still have a responsibility to serve ourselves and we’ve got to figure out a model that works for us.
“We can’t listen to people who say this is no longer relevant or whatever,” Coates said. “Samuel Cornish said it was too long that others had spoken for us. It was outsized and impractical then.
“The Black Press is still relevant, and we have to keep pushing,” he said. “Classic Black Press and BCP Digital Printing were outsized and one of the smallest printing companies, but we’re still here.”