A barbershop may not be the first place people think of as a source for books, but to Artika Tyner, an educator and civil rights attorney in St. Paul, Minn., it makes perfect sense.
“Black people create community wherever we are,” says Tyner, who partnered with Gideon’s Barber Shop owner Jacob Deisch to open Planting People Growing Justice Bookstore in Minneapolis. “There’s the economics of it—we’re able to do it on our own terms. People can come here for the full arts and culture experience, but also get the best haircut in Minneapolis.”
Tyner’s store is one of a handful of Black-owned bricks-and-mortar bookshops that have opened in the Twin Cities in the three-plus years since George Floyd’s murder, joining Babycake’s Book Stack, a mobile children’s bookstore launched in 2019. The shops vary in size and scope, but their missions align: each aims to provide a welcoming space for people to connect through books.
Gideon’s Barber Shop opened in June 2020 in a racially diverse neighborhood about three miles south of downtown Minneapolis and less than a mile from where Floyd was murdered. Deisch says he envisioned the shop as “a place of healing and transformation.” He and Tyner connected three months later when he ordered a copy of Tyner’s children’s book Justice Makes a Difference, which she published through her Planting People Growing Justice Press, one arm of the community organization she founded in 2014. (Lerner distributes the press’s titles.)
A traditional model, Tyner says, doesn’t always work for Black bookstores. “A lot of independent Black booksellers, they’re struggling with overhead, engagement, staffing, and all those pieces.” It can also be difficult to obtain the start-up capital and financial support necessary to attain stability; situating her shop at Gideon’s, Tyner says, allows her to sell books with minimal financial risk in a space that already has patrons. “You need a vehicle to connect with people,” she says. “Bookstores should be in the places where people are.”
Planting People Growing Justice Bookstore stocks about 100 adult and children’s books by Black authors, as well as music and gift items. What unites Tyner’s various projects, she says, is “a love of reading, love of literacy, love of culture, and love of representation of Black folks.” Her goal is to empower Black children by making reading “part of the culture, making it part of daily life in meaningful ways.”
Extending their reach
In addition to working with local organizations to host weekly pop-ups from late spring through early fall, Tyner maintains a display area for her imprint inside Strive Bookstore in downtown Minneapolis.
Like Tyner’s shop, Strive has its roots in an independent press: Mary Taris launched Strive Publishing in 2018 to publish children’s books by Black authors. After Floyd’s death, Taris says, she was inundated with inquiries “by people who wanted to get their stories into the world.” Realizing that she could get more books into people’s hands as a bookseller than as the publisher of “one or two books a year,” Taris began selling books mainly by BIPOC authors “that were overlooked in major and standard-type bookstores.” She set up a display under the name Strive Bookstore at the Sistah Coop, which a group of Black entrepreneurs runs inside a downtown Minneapolis shopping mall.
In June 2023, Strive Bookstore moved into a 2,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of a historic 1898 building. Bob Greenberg, the building’s owner, leases the space to Strive at a deeply discounted rate, based each month on her sales percentages. “Greenberg really loves bookstores and wanted to open a bookstore here,” Taris says. “The downtown council recommended Strive. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.” She continues to specialize in books by authors from underrepresented communities and also maintains display areas showcasing the works of local publishers; in addition to Tyner’s imprint and her own, Taris highlights books by Elva Resa Publishing and Green Card Voices.
Strive Bookstore hosts periodic author events, such as a September appearance by Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison, who in Break the Wheel recounts prosecuting Floyd’s murderer. Memoirist Curtis Chin stopped by in October to promote Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant. Open mic nights and other programming are an effort to become a downtown anchor, Taris says, but she also aspires to be “a neighborhood go-to for books and literary events.”
With her daughter now running Strive Publishing, Taris is able to focus on bookselling. “It turns out that I really love it,” she says. “I’m an introvert, but when I’m talking to people about books, my extrovert comes out.”
Across the Mississippi River in Saint Paul, Black Garnet owner Dionne Sims recently celebrated her third year as a bookseller and her first anniversary doing business in a store on a major thoroughfare.
Sims says that after Floyd’s murder, she had “an existential crisis.” She quit her job in the technology sector to “be in the community in all the ways I could, whether it was protesting or handing out food to people.” Sims launched Black Garnet in July 2020 as an online shop selling books by Black authors, with occasional pop-ups around Minneapolis; almost immediately, she was deluged with orders. “There was a point when we had 500 orders in the queue,” she recalls. “Even if I had a full-time team with a forklift and automatic packaging, it would have taken us weeks to get through them. But it was just me and my mom.”
Things have since settled down, and Black Garnet was able to move into its physical home in October 2022. Sims raised $113,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, and the city of Saint Paul matched $100,000 of that sum. Though she appreciates the city’s help, Sims points out that such assistance isn’t a cure-all. “Most small businesses don’t have $100,000 lying around,” she says, “and you have to have the money up front before they give you the grant. People wonder why there weren’t any Black-owned bookstores: this one wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t had that initial online support.”
Black Garnet specializes in books by BIPOC authors; All About Love by bell hooks is a perennial bestseller, and Sims’s favorite handsell is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. She says the shop is becoming known as a place for “people to go to for progressive books, for books that reflect their and their children’s experiences.” It’s also regarded as a safe space. “People can come here for a little peace,” she says. “I know people who come in here and say, ‘We just want to pet your dog.’ ”