ROLAND LAIRD '82
Rising from the Ashes
A book about African-American history stretches the comic-book genre
Four years ago, Roland Laird hit bottom. He and his wife of four months, Taneshia, had just lost their home to a gas-line explosion. Gone up in flames, too, were Laird's prized comic-book collection and all the story ideas for Posro Komics, a publishing house he and Taneshia had founded to help popularize African-American culture.
Then, just as suddenly, "an opportunity fell into our laps," Laird recalls. He and his wife received a proposal for what would become their book, Still I Rise: A Cartoon History of African Americans (W.W. Norton). Although Posro had published several successful comic-book series and strips - most notably "The Griots," which was reaching more than a million readers weekly - Laird had never tackled a project of this scope. The 200-page history of African-American life from slavery to the Million Man March "was an opportunity to do something more - to collaborate with young African-American artists and do work that is relevant to the African-American community," he says.
Over a year and a half, Laird, a software engineer and lifelong comic-book junkie, painstakingly worked with Taneshia on the text for Still I Rise. Historians from Prince-ton and the University of Michigan fact-checked the work and made sure the dialogue was true to the speech patterns of each era. Once the script was completed, it went to illustrator Elihu "Adofo" Bey, who gave faces to the voices, creating hundreds of detailed drawings. "It was like watching a movie being brought to life," says Laird. The resulting book has been named an alternate selection by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
While Still I Rise is technically a comic book, it is less like Superman and more like Art Spiegelman's Maus. "I don't expect it to take the place of traditional prose," Laird says of his book's format, "but it definitely augments it - it's `edutainment'." Comic books appeal to people of all ages, he adds, and can draw young people who might not pick up a history book.
Laird has more comic-book projects in the works, including a volume about hip-hop; he is also toying with the idea of writing a screenplay about his experiences at Brown. In the meantime, he and Taneshia are enjoying their new home. - Torri Still
AMY NYE '90
Up, Up, and Away
A traveler's yen for Walkman tapes spawns a booming airport business
Ask Amy Nye about the inspiration behind AltiTunes, her chain of airport-based music stores, and she readily admits, "I copied the idea." After a summer of traveling in Europe just before entering Brown, Nye found herself in London's Heathrow Airport, "completely sick of the tapes I'd brought along for my Walkman," she says. She bought an overpriced tape from an airport music store and wondered, "Why don't they have music stores in airports at home? And why is this store so expensive?"
Nearly a decade later, in the fall of 1994, Nye had completed a financial-analyst training program at Goldman Sachs and was thinking about starting her own business. She remembered that moment in Heathrow and began mulling ideas for an airport music store. Desperate for leads, Nye dialed 411 and got the number for the New York Port Authority. Twenty phone calls later, after being turned down by both Kennedy and Newark airports, Nye found a sympathetic manager at LaGuardia. "I couldn't believe he gave me a shot," Nye says. "Reaching one person who's open-minded - that's all it takes."
At LaGuardia, Nye made her pitch: she needed only 200 square feet - enough room for a freestanding kiosk. "With kiosks, you often get better locations," says Nye.
"You can plop one down right in the middle of traffic. They're much less expensive to build, and people who walk by have an incentive to stop. It's hard to get people with luggage into a store. It's too cramped."
Her simple idea - offering reasonably priced music to weary travelers - has taken off. AltiTunes stores, which sell everything from CDs to video games to PalmPilots, can now be found in the major East Coast airports. Average sales of $1,500 per square foot earned Nye's company a cool $2 million in 1997.
Nye plans to expand into other parts of the United States, Canada, and Mexico, and this summer, an AltiTunes outpost will open in New York's Grand Central Station. By year's end, Nye estimates twenty-eight AltiTunes stores will be up and running. Not bad for an idea inspired by a teenage quest for new tapes.