Inspired by Octavia Butler’s Parable novels, the hybrid bookstore/cultural center Parable in Tacoma, Wash., aims to be a community gathering space. Twins LaKecia Farmer and Le’Ecia Farmer, with their cousin Deatria “Dee Dee” Williams, opened the shop in August. Following what LaKecia calls a “learn-as-you-go” approach, they combined their skills, crowdfunded, and sought business mentorship before deciding their new enterprise would focus on books by, for, and about members of the LGBTQ and BIPOC communities, as well as women and nonbinary people. LaKecia said Parable is “a place for people to be themselves.”
Parable has a 50/50 mix of new and used titles, with Ingram as its primary distributor. At the very start, LaKecia said, “the Bookshop.org site helped a lot when we couldn’t ship books fast enough.” The women quickly added items when people came in looking for records or candles and ended up buying a book. “Books are part of a larger picture,” she added.
Bestsellers include the work of Octavia Butler (naturally), James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, and present-day favorites like adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater, and Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States flies off the shelves, and popular children’s books—notably Innosanto Nagara’s A Is for Activist—are stacked under a homespun sign reading “Earthseed.”
LaKecia thinks back to reading Parable of the Sower with her sister and cousin several years ago. The book impressed all three of them. “Fast-forward, and we’re in a pandemic and a racial uprising,” she said. “It was palpable that we were in uncertain times.”
Le’Ecia remembers, “We wanted a name that has intention. Parable made sense because the racial and political tensions in the book have a lot in common with the times we are going through. We were clinging to this idea because it was giving us hope in this extremely hard time. New beginnings were happening—people were coming together and figuring things out and being resourceful.”
At first the three considered opening a café and interviewed owners of community coffee shops in Seattle. Before long, LaKecia thought, “What about books?” She imagined visitors “getting energized through history, speculative fiction,” and other literary genres. “I’m a big fan of Paolo Friere. It’s more than just literacy: it’s education, freedom, and community.”
When a corner commercial space opened in their neighborhood, they saw potential. The available building had housed a lamp repair shop—“one of those places where it was always in the side of your eye,” Le’Ecia said. “It wasn’t a super flashy place, but once all the lamps were gone, it looked weird and empty.”
LaKecia called the owner. “By that time, we were scrambling to put together a business plan, and it was about books and art and clothes and community,” Le’Ecia said.
LaKecia, Le’Ecia, and Williams developed a presence at local markets and online, selling donated used books and the plants Le’Ecia propagated. But as responsibilities accumulated, the team found a wholesaler to supply additional plants. Seedlings now sprout all over the shop.
As a new business, Parable also took advantage of a partnership between the city of Tacoma; Spaceworks Tacoma, a local incubator and supporter of artists and special projects; and Kiva, which offers zero-interest microloans for startups. Kiva requires entrepreneurs to establish community interest through private crowdfunding before the process goes live to an investor network.
“Kiva wants you to show you have credit and some kind of impact within your community,” said David Combs, capital access manager at Spaceworks. “We have a 100% funding rate for folks who get past the private funding phase. When you go live, investors can go in and loan you money.”
Parable’s team received additional counsel through SCORE South Sound/Tacoma, which pairs entrepreneurs with volunteer mentors and helps them establish bricks-and-mortar businesses. Parable also joined a cohort of the Pierce County Business Accelerator, a program administered by the Tacoma Chamber of Commerce using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. According to program coordinator Deborah Haywood, PCBA provides a six-week mentorship course tailored to BIPOC entrepreneurs, veterans, and women. Participants who finish the course and do crowdfunding—including through Kiva—become eligible for matching grants of up to $10,000.
Parable got yet another boost when Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo (So You Want to Talk About Race and Mediocre) posted about the store on Instagram and Facebook. “I cold-called her through social media and said, ‘We’re a new bookstore you might want to know about,’ ” LaKecia said. “[After Oluo posted,] we sold almost all our books and got more donations. I guess we do know a lot of people, and those people know a lot of people, and it’s a ripple effect. There’s definitely buzz. But it all started with the people.”
Even the store’s inventory and design are community efforts. “For example, we used to just get free donated books, and now we are starting to buy used books and that helps us restock,” LaKecia says. “It’s cool, too, because people will look around the shop and then bring a book. Some bookstores will turn away books because they’re curating, but our customers know exactly what we’re looking for. We curate books geared toward people who have been left out historically.”
Events in the space—from open mic nights to a Black Mamas Support Group—invite visitors to relax, and the shop presently does not collect any commission on art or LPs sold through the store.
To keep costs down, LaKecia bought such items as couches and tables at thrift stores. A friend who is a contractor donated hours to redo a dressing room and bathroom. Williams, who specializes in customer service and interior design, worked on the floor layout to make sure it’s accessible to everyone. To paint the substantial space a warm green, the team held a painting party and their neighbors showed up to help. Their rescue parakeet, named Butler, sings on the front desk.
“The goal was to make it feel like you’re coming into someone’s home, a space that’s nice and easy,” Williams said. “It’s been amazing to be working in the store and to hear people saying I love your space. It’s been a whirlwind—I couldn’t be more proud of the three of us.”