‘Like I belong’: How an Inglewood library became a safe space for black readers | California

ASha Grant sits in a pew near a table covered in vintage magazines. In the months before the Salt Eaters bookstore opened, she got hold of the pew online from a soon-to-close church and the coffee table belonged to her grandmother.

Grant says she wanted the bookstore in Inglewood, Calif., to be imbued with a sense of belonging and inclusion. Bright pink wallpaper with a Zora Neale Hurston design adds a splash of color, and upon entering there’s a mirror with pictures of Grant’s maternal grandmother and great-aunt. A draped quilt behind the bench was a community project and allowed people to donate denim and sew it together.

Every item in the Salt Eaters bookstore goes back to black culture and community. On its shelves, visitors can find books that focus on “black women, girls, women, and gender-broad people,” Grant says.

“There are markers of Blackness and our experience everywhere across the generations,” she said. “There will be a grandmother who will enter [and] she’ll see the pew and say, “Oh, my God, that reminds me of when I was little, and I was taking a nap in the pew.” There are parents who will come with their children and they will buy Jet magazines and say, ‘You don’t know anything about this. But in my day, Jet magazine was everything. It’s nice to see how people interact with the space without me.

Grant founded the Los Angeles chapter of the Free Black Women’s Library, a project created by New York-based artist OlaRonke Akinmowo in 2015, before opening the brick-and-mortar store. The beginnings of the mobile and ephemeral library were centered on community exchange: people could remove a book from the shelves and leave another for the next reader. In Los Angeles, the Free Black Women’s Library delivered books to restaurants and cafes. Now there is a permanent section dedicated to the library in the Salt Eaters Bookstore, whose name is derived from The Salt Eaters, a novel by Toni Cade Bambara.

The bookstore is one of hundreds that have opened across the United States since the pandemic began, many of which are owned by people or people of color. Independent bookstores and authors of color have also seen increased interest in a racial count following the 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

The Pulitzer Center reported independent book sales increased 75% comparing the first quarter of 2021 to the same quarter in 2020. Allison Hill, executive director of the American Booksellers Association, said 335 independent bookstores opened their doors since the start of the pandemic. .

“Even more exciting is the growth in the number of stores owned by people of color and stores committed to creating spaces where people can connect and their experiences reflected in books,” Hill said. “As a space that centers and celebrates the stories of black women, girls, women and non-binary people, Salt Eaters Bookstore is a wonderful and important addition to the independent bookstore community.”

“Serving a Community”

Between watching the news cycle and seeing the impacts of the pandemic, as well as the growing number of murders of black trans women, Grant decided to pursue her idea of ​​creating a safe space for black communities.

In 2020, she launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $65,000 in funds to secure a location in Inglewood and cover the cost of opening and maintaining the bookstore for a year. People started contributing quickly, and author Roxane Gay shared the campaign on Twitter. In the first week, he surpassed the goal, raising over $84,000.

Independent bookstores and authors of color have also seen increased interest following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Photography: Mark Glouner/The Salt Eaters Bookshop

The store soft-launched in 2021 and allowed Grant to meet a lot of people in real life, having mostly interacted with them online and through social media. The bookstore quickly became a literary gathering place. He hosted an online poetry reading with Claudia Rankine, in collaboration with Cal State Los Angeles, and a virtual author discussion with Morgan Parker and Safia Elhillo. When singer Michelle Williams published her book, Registration, the bookstore was part of his virtual book tour. Recent in-person events include a queer book club reunion and a conversation with Love Radio author Ebony LaDelle and not all boys are blue author George M Johnson (with a DJ set by DJ Kita).

“The Salt Eaters, or any bookstore for that matter, truly serves a community,” LaDelle said. “From the moment I stepped in, I felt an intent to serve people like me and readers like mine. Sometimes you notice that in the smallest things — like how their curation of merch and the decoration was also from black creatives, or how their hours are limited for their own personal sanity and the health of their staff members, it shows.

Ashley M Coleman, Freelance Writer and Good Morning, Love author, followed the store on social media and then hosted an author event in the space. She says the staff brought her flowers and a card that immediately welcomed her, especially as a first-time novelist.

“Black and POC writers were really marginalized in the mainstream bookstore landscape. There would be a section for black or urban literature. I remember it very well, as a young reader – just having this very small space,” she says. “It’s absolutely amazing to see spaces like The Salt Eaters where the front and front displays are of black women and POC or gender broad people. It really creates a sense of pride that goes beyond the constraints of a single shelf in a larger store.

Elise Bryant, author of Happily Ever Afters and One True Loves, also notes that the Salt Eaters bookstore felt like an “affirmation space.”

“I walked in and immediately felt like I belonged — and as a black woman, that wasn’t an experience I’d had in a bookstore before,” Bryant said.

“Suspended Between Something”

The bookstore attempts to add a discharge of energy to Inglewood’s Market Street, a once bustling shopping district with large chain stores in the 1920s. The metropolitan area continued to evolve over the decades and in 1949 the Inglewood Fox Theater was built with amenities that set it apart as an innovative space (it even had air conditioning). The theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013, “becoming the first Market Street property to achieve this milestone,” according to the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation. The theater was a must see, but it would fall into disrepair and restoration efforts are still ongoing.

In recent years, Market Street has struggled to keep businesses open and increased foot traffic to restaurants and shops dotted along the block. In 2019, area business owners told Curbed they were closing due to high rent prices and a lack of customers.

Los Angeles residents worried about a major shift in home and business prices when the NFL announced the Rams and Chargers would move to Inglewood in 2016, and feared gentrification and construction would make the area unaffordable . Construction of the SoFi Stadium and plans for a new subway have brought an influx of people to the area. Inglewood’s growth has driven home prices up 37%, Curbed reported.

In February, SoFi Stadium hosted Super Bowl LVI 2022, drawing huge crowds to the neighborhood, but the event caused local stores to miss business due to closed streets and less foot traffic, said Grant.

Recently, she noticed a luxury building under construction.

Grant fears the bookstore’s rent will go up in the near future after neighbors tell him their rent has doubled. She says it’s exciting to be in the midst of black-owned businesses such as the Residency art gallery, Sip & Sonder and Hilltop Cafe, but she’s still wary of what might happen next.

“It’s like you’re suspended between something and you know what’s coming and you know what’s behind it,” Grant said. “And everything just hasn’t completely turned around.”

But Grant is hopeful and was thrilled to see the attention the bookstore has received from the community. There’s a lounge area created “so people feel like they could stay for a while”, and a small table nearby invites children to draw and color. Educators often arrive looking for specific books for students, and many people come looking for a distraction.

“Being a bookseller and owning a bookstore is like being a doctor. There are customers who come in and they say to themselves, “I was really looking for something light. I’m really on top of the news cycle and all that. Do you have anything I can escape to?” Grant said. “I feel like I can just help people get to where they need to go through the books.”

Genres like Afro-futurism and self-help topped visitor lists, so Grant began including more books in those areas. The store also hosted meditation and breathing sessions.

“Reading is a really intimate and solitary activity,” Grant said. “You always need that time where you’re just quietly with yourself.”

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