“Bookstores are not really moneymaking ventures,” says Nicole Sullivan, longtime owner of Denver’s BookBar and the Bookies, a children’s bookstore that she purchased last fall. “We are a community service.” The process of making her bookstores a public benefit corporation in 2021 was an acknowledgment of that reality, she adds. With the new designation—a step in the process of becoming a B Corp—the bookstores put their service mission front and center, formalizing what they’ve already been doing for years, according to Sullivan.

Book Give, the stores’ affiliated nonprofit, partners with close to 250 organizations—including schools, prisons, shelters, and assisted living centers—to provide free new and used books. Ten percent of BookBar and the Bookies’s sales already go to Book Give. So by simply buying a book, customers are helping their community. “It’s a great way to involve the community in what we do,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan is one of a number of booksellers who have rooted their businesses in community partnerships. That’s the case at three-year-old Brave + Kind Bookshop, a Black-owned, mom-run bookstore in Decatur, Ga. Inspired by her daughter’s love of reading and her desire to find books for her in which she could see herself, Bunnie Hilliard started the subscription box service Giggle Girls Book Club in 2014. With the opening of the store, she renamed it the Brave + Kind Book Club.

Opening a bricks-and-mortar store was always a dream, so when a suitable space became available in 2018, Hilliard launched an Indiegogo campaign that included naming opportunities for the store’s shelves. Now bookcases are embellished with little green clouds displaying the names of those who invested in the store. There’s even a “family tree” on the store wall displaying the names of those who donated, emphasizing that the community that cares about inclusive books is part of the store’s family. “It feels like something we are all doing, not just me,” Hilliard says.

That visible presence of community support is just one way that Hilliard fosters inclusivity at Brave + Kind, in addition to its inventory. Partnerships with local organizations extend the store’s mission to help young readers find themselves in books. Brave + Kind supplies books to Page Turners Make Great Learners, an Atlanta nonprofit that provides books to underserved schools and to Readers to Dreamers, which brings diverse authors and illustrators to schools free of charge.

In addition to these grant- and donor-funded initiatives, Hilliard offers consulting services and fulfillment for schools and libraries wanting to diversify their collections. The store hosts virtual pop-up bookfairs at schools across the country, bringing a thoughtfully researched collection of diverse books into schools and offering options for teachers to create wish lists and for anyone with a link to donate. Because her store has limited foot traffic, Hilliard says, these initiatives allow her to stretch her reach.

For Pranati “Prinoo” Kumar, founder and owner of Rohi’s Readery, a social-justice-driven children’s bookstore in West Palm Beach, Fla., community partnerships are integral to the store’s mission. “Collaboration and community are two of our favorite words!” she wrote on the Readery’s website. An educator focused on critical literacy and DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusivity, and anti-racism), Kumar came to bookselling after working in early childhood education in the South Bronx and Harlem and cofounding a charter school for immigrant and refugee children in Seattle.

Kumar named the Readery, which opened last June, for her grandmother and her young daughter, Rohini. Her mission, she says, is to offer “beautiful stories of historically marginalized communities, creating an identity-driven experience and building human connections through the love of books.”

The Readery hosts 12–15 events per month. Because accessibility is so important to Kumar’s mission, events are free, but donations are accepted. Profits from book sales are cycled back into programming to pay presenters from community organizations and small business owners from marginalized communities for sharing their talents. Some of those programs have included a panel discussion with Eclectic Conversations, a group that organizes “conversation parties” to promote community dialogue and a gathering with the Melanin Mommy Society, an organization promoting wellness for mothers of color.

“Bookstores are in a unique position to bring disparate people together; we are that third place that allows for the introduction of new ideas and sometimes new causes as well,” says Cynthia Compton, who founded 4 Kids Books & Toys in Zionsville, Ind., in 2003. Compton takes the store’s position at the intersection of the community and cultural conversation seriously, actively seeking opportunities for connection. She’s passionate about animal rescue and has been partnering with rescue organizations for many years.

“Nothing brings a kid into a store faster than a puppy,” Compton says. Families coming in for adoption events for rescues learn about the store, the books, and the organization. Some even leave with a new furry friend. Through the years, partnerships with community organizations have included letting the Girl Scouts set up a table, offering groups a meeting space, or donating a portion of sales. But the store doesn’t limit its outreach to the store’s physical space. “You can be a bricks-and-mortar store and still have a pop-up tent and a folding tent,” Compton says. “Everything you do should be a partnership. We should be in each other’s business in the best sense.”

Joanne O’Sullivan is a journalist, editor, author of YA fiction and children’s nonfiction, and regular PW contributor.

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