South Bend, Ind.’s sole independent bookstore, Brain Lair Bookstore, may be only three years old, but its roots go back many years, to owner Kathy Burnette’s childhood in a rough Chicago neighborhood. “It was books that got me through that,” she said, though she has never forgotten how “terrible” it was that she was about 12 years old before she’d ever read a book featuring Black characters.
Brain Lair, which until recently was located in a retail space a five-minute drive from Notre Dame University’s campus, is currently an online bookstore. Bookshelves curated by Brain Lair are also located inside local businesses, with the bookstore splitting the proceeds with the businesses making these books available to their customers. It also recently entered into an arrangement with the new South Bend Children’s Museum to make a selection of books available for its visitors.
Brain Lair’s e-commerce transactions went from 10 per month pre-pandemic, to more than 100 daily last spring and over 300 daily in June. Burnette closed the store to customer traffic in the summer and did not renew the lease at the end of December. With the influx of online sales, Burnette noted, “We were warehousing. It was just so many books in our small space.” She added: “When this pandemic is over and I’ve found the perfect space, that’s when I will reopen as a community center bookstore. Right now I am going directly to the people.” Customers can pick up orders on the porch of Brain Lair’s former location, and local delivery is also available.
Burnette’s current operating model is working. Brain Lair’s sales in the latter half of 2020 were three times those for all of 2019, Burnette said, primarily due to a spike in sales of adult titles after the death of George Floyd. Its three bestselling books last year were all adult titles: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, I Have Something to Tell You by Chasten Buttigieg, and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Sales have remained strong into 2021, keeping Burnette and her one part-time employee working hard.
Burnette didn’t start out as a bookseller. She worked first as a teacher and then as a school librarian for 16 years, convinced, she said, that “if you can effect changes in the schools, that’d change everything,” since “teachers are key” to formulating children’s perspectives. Burnette said that Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s 2009 TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” inspired her to use her position in the schools to both update the offerings in the library stacks and to encourage teachers to update their curricula with more diverse reads. But it was the presidential election in 2016 that compelled Burnette to turn to bookselling—“to change things,” she said. The day after Donald Trump was elected president, Burnette submitted her resignation to the school and began the process of opening a bookstore.
After raising $10,000 and finding a temporary space, Burnette opened her doors in July 2018. Brain Lair, an anagram of librarian, specializes in books with characters from marginalized communities. Burnette’s goal is to give kids access to books that are inclusive, which meant, she said, that she intended to move the store around, “to make sure I brought books to them.” Burnette said she selects her inventory based on “whatever I’m interested in,” adding that she is advised in her choices by a group that includes young readers, children’s book experts, and librarians. “I make sure I know what’s coming out,” she said.
Burnette is firm on what she will stock and what she won’t. Being a mission-driven store, she won’t even special order books that don’t fit into her objective of providing customers with diverse titles. She also carries only a few of the “classics,” explaining that such reads “are not universal, not everybody’s story.” Brain Lair has always carried a small selection of adult titles in addition to its children’s books, but her stock of adult titles has expanded this past year in response to customer demand.
Though Burnette for a time believed that her most recent location would be the permanent one for her physical store, she is unfazed by Brain Lair’s pivot to online sales. “What I am doing now is what I set out to do in the first place,” she said. “I envisioned that I would not be in one place for more than three months. I’m going with my original vision to provide access to books to the kids who probably can’t get them normally.”