Welcome to "On the Job," an occasional Hello Alice interview series in which small business owners narrate their entrepreneurial journey.
Parents of four kids, Pamela and Jeffrey Blair started EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore in 2015 to offer titles that feature African American characters and celebrate the contributions of Black inventors, writers, and other historical figures. The store quickly became a one-stop-shop for anyone looking to find diverse children’s books in the St. Louis suburb of University City.
Hello Alice spoke with Pamela about what drove her to open EyeSeeMe, how the store pivoted during COVID, and why she never gives up. What follows are her own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Co-Owner, EyeSeeMe African American Children's Bookstore | University City, MO
My husband and I homeschooled our four children, and we wanted them to know more about themselves. We tried to find history books or fiction books, but it was very, very difficult. We also wanted to find more Bible stories that have characters that look like them, and we could not find that at all. It was nonexistent! I ended up writing a couple of stories just for them to see themselves in the Bible.
When we went to public school, the kids would go to the library, and the librarian would come up empty-handed. That's when we went to the school board and the superintendent. I offered a list of books that we used in homeschool, but I was told no.
Teachers and parents would ask me, ‘What did you do? How are your children so comfortable in their skin?’ So we formed a book club with other Black kids from the school system, and more and more parents would ask for books and titles. We knew that we should have this available to everyone who wanted it. The community we lived in was predominantly white, so we found a small spot in a more diverse neighborhood. We had maybe 100 books at first and thought that if we made $100 a week, that’s fine. I didn’t care about profit. We just wanted Black children to see themselves in the stories they read because we know that schools didn’t really have that.
We knew nothing about business back then. All I knew was that we needed a business plan. I didn’t know anything about the book industry or anything like that. We just called up a distributor, and we called one of the publishers, Random House, and we got some books into the store. Then we opened.
When COVID hit, it was in the middle of our revenue season — book fair season. We had purchased all of our inventory and filled all of our orders. Then 90% of our book fairs were canceled. We thought we were done. We had suppliers to pay. We had rent to pay. Then we had the idea to do a fundraiser and see what happens. Our community came out and supported us by donation, and they hugged us so tightly.
We pivoted to online sales and curbside pickup because we were shut down. Then the unfortunate death of George Floyd kind of sparked the whole concept of, ‘Oh, racism still does exist.’ Equity, racism, and anti-racism books were suddenly selling. We didn’t sell many adult books, but now we had to pivot. Different communities wanted to know what we go through on a daily basis as African Americans. That was one of our biggest pivots: online, curbside pickup, and mailing. It turned us into a fulfillment center. We sold maybe 100,000 books.
One of our customers came in and asked me how many times I wanted to quit. For me, it was at least two or three times a week. It’s been five and a half years now. It’s become really tough because we didn’t start out as confident. What really drives me when I’m thinking of quitting is when a grandparent or parent emails or calls or walks into the store. They'll tell us, ‘You don’t understand what this one book did for my granddaughter. She wasn’t feeling good. She’s in a classroom where she is the only one with her texture. I bought this book for her, and now she’s loving her hair.’ Or another person will say, ‘A teacher read one of your books in the class, and my granddaughter loved it. She felt comfortable in class. She felt proud of her skin tone.’
A lot of children, especially when they’re in environments where they’re the only ones, have insecurities about their hair texture or skin tone. Our books help children, Black children, see themselves in stories. That’s what gets me up in the morning.