By ISABELLE TAFT, Sun Herald
GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) _ Inside a little office in downtown Gulfport, Tonisha Kimble is writing a new chapter in Mississippi’s history of Black-owned book stores.
Kimble opened the Wonders of the World Book and Toy Store space earlier this month, after years in business as an online vendor. The shop displays comics, picture books like “Freedom We Sing,” and notebooks Kimble designed herself, including one with the Audre Lorde quote “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Her shop joins a handful of Black-owned book stores in Mississippi.
A non-exclusive list: In Biloxi, there’s the shop and publishing company Black Authors Rock. In Pearl, there’s Milestone Christian Bookstore. And in Jackson, there’s Marshall’s Music & Bookstore, the oldest continuously operated Black-owned book shop in the country, according to its current owner.
These shops are bucking a national trend: From 2000 to 2012, the number of Black-owned book stores in the United States fell from 325 to 54.
And they’re doing it in Mississippi, the home state of some of America’s most influential authors, from Richard Wright and Anne Moody in the 20th century to Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon today.
That’s the legacy that Kimble hopes to carry forward on the Coast.
“It’s a weird combination _ we have such a rich arts and literary history that people don’t think about,” she said. “The first thing you think is something racist. It definitely takes work to have people know that we’re here.”
`A SINK OR SWIM MOMENT’
This is how Kimble describes the COVID-19 pandemic: “It was a sink or swim moment for me.”
Before the pandemic, she relied on events to sell products and build relationships with potential customers. With events canceled or scaled back, it was hard to make enough money selling only online.
So she found the space in downtown Gulfport and decided to make the leap to open a brick-and-mortar store for the first time. She’s hoping the store will allow for serendipitous interactions with customers, conversations about books and toys for kids, book signings and author talks and even birthday parties.
As a kid, Kimble was a reader, and “fortunate enough” to always have books around. She loved mysteries (Agatha Christie, Anne Rice), flipping through encyclopedias, and books by Eric Jerome Dickey.
When her son was born, she wanted to help him love books, too. But she realized it was difficult to find books that represented her family.
“I was like, if I’m facing that problem, I’m sure my friends and other people that I know who love books also and want to pass it on to their children are as well,” she said. “Why not start a business?”
She started WoW while living in Florida a few years ago, as an online shop selling books, toys and puzzles. The logo, which she designed herself, depicts her and her son.
THE MEANING OF A BLACK-OWNED BOOK STORE
Owning a bookstore runs in Maati Jone Primm’s family. Her grandmother Ora Page Marshall founded Marshall’s Music and Bookstore in Jackson 83 years ago.
“It kind of makes us the unicorn of book stores, that we could go through three generations and five owners and still come out successful,” Primm said.
Primm says Marshall’s is the country’s oldest Black-owned bookstore. It’s more than two decades older than Marcus Books, the Oakland, California, store often described as the oldest Black-owned bookstore in the U.S.
After emancipation, Primm’s great-grandmother founded a church and a school. Ora Page Marshall, the first member of her family born after slavery, carried on that family tradition of community involvement by opening her Christian bookstore in Jackson during the Great Depression.
Today, Primm carries on that tradition through the family business. As owner for the past 15 years, Primm expanded the store’s offerings to include more books on Black history and culture. Marshall’s teaches history programs in Jackson schools and at the store, and has contributed to advocacy campaigns
“Life becomes a mission, because that’s the roots that (Marshall) planted, the seeds that she planted,” Primm said. “We would understand that it is necessary to not live selfishly, but to live in a way that the world is a better place that we lived here.”
`I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE EVERYBODY’
Tommye Morris said it was a revelation from that led her and her husband James Morris to open their store, Milestone Christian Bookstore, in Pearl in 1995. It was an extension of ministry: James Morris is the pastor of Christ-Anointed Church in Jackson.
“We could provide information, a place for resources, for people who were curious about the word, wanting to know more,” Tommye Morris said. “The only way you can do that is study. There’s gotta be somewhere for people to get study materials. We wanted to provide that place.”
The Bible, the most widely read book in the world, is of course their best seller, but prayer books and greeting cards are popular as well.
Their customers know that when they come to shop, they can pray, too, either with the Morrises or by dropping a note in the prayer request box.
“Along with providing general resources for people to study God’s word or to have a way to understand His word better, we serve another purpose, and that is to be a loving Black presence in the community,” Tommye Morris said.
WoW is a secular bookstore with a similar dedication to the community. Kimble envisions it as a place where kids can find something to do.
Even before opening her physical space, Kimble participated in events like a community baby shower focused on addressing health disparities that affect Black mothers.
Kimble doesn’t worry much about Amazon, she said, because she has something they can’t offer. She just wants to make sure people know where to find her.
“I love my home state, I’ve been a lot of places, and I really just want people to know that this type of culture is here,” Kimble said. “I can’t wait to see everybody.”
WONDERS OF THE WORLD BOOK AND TOY STORE
Where: 1520 29th Ave., Suite 3, Gulfport MS 39501
Hours: Hours vary so check the store’s Facebook page for the latest information.