In a small office in downtown Gulfport, Tonisha Kimble is writing a new chapter in Mississippi history of black-owned bookstores.
Kimble opened the Wonders of the World Book and Toy Store space earlier this month, after years of being in business as an online seller. The shop features comics, picture books like “Freedom We Sing” and notebooks designed by Kimble, including one with Audre Lorde’s quote “Taking care of me is not self-indulgence, it’s self-preservation, and it’s a political act of war. “
His shop joins a handful of black-owned bookstores in Mississippi.
A non-exclusive list: In Biloxi, there is the Black Authors Rock boutique and publishing house. At Pearl, there is Milestone Christian Bookstore. And in Jackson, there’s Marshall’s Music & Bookstore, the oldest permanently black-owned bookstore in the country, according to its current owner.
These stores go against a national trend: From 2000 to 2012, the number of black-owned bookstores in the United States increased from 325 to 54.
And they do it in Mississippi, the home state of some of America’s most influential writers, from 20th century Richard Wright and Anne Moody to Jesmyn Ward and Kiese Laymon today.
This is the legacy Kimble hopes to carry on the coast.
“It’s a strange combination – we have such a rich artistic and literary history that people don’t think,” she said. “The first thing you think of is something racist. It really takes work to let people know that we are here.
‘A MOMENT FOR THE SINK OR SWIMMING’
This is how Kimble describes the COVID-19 pandemic: “This 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 canceled or reduced events, it was difficult to make enough money selling only online.
So she found the space in downtown Gulfport and decided to take the leap to open a brick and mortar store for the first time. She hopes the store will allow for casual interactions with customers, conversations about children’s books and toys, book signings and author talks, and even birthday parties.
As a child, Kimble was a reader and “lucky enough” to always have books on hand. She loved mysteries (Agatha Christie, Anne Rice), leafing through encyclopedias and books by Eric Jerome Dickey.
When her son was born, she also wanted to help him love books. But she realized that it was difficult to find books that represented her family.
“I was like, if I am facing this problem, I am sure my friends and other people I know who also love books and want to pass them on to their children are too,” she said. . “Why not start a business? “
She started WoW while living in Florida a few years ago, as an online store selling books, toys, and puzzles. The logo, which she designed herself, represents her and her son.
THE MEANING OF A BLACK PROPERTY BOOK
Owning a bookstore belongs to the family of Maati Jone Primm. His grandmother Ora Page Marshall founded Marshall’s Music and Bookstore in Jackson 83 years ago.
“It kind of makes us the unicorn of the bookstores, that we can go through three generations and five owners and still be successful,” Primm said.
Primm says Marshall’s is the oldest black-owned bookstore in the country. It’s over two decades older than Marcus Books, the Oakland, Calif., Store often described as the oldest black-owned bookstore in the United States.
After emancipation, Primm’s great-grandmother founded a church and a school. Ora Page Marshall, the first member of his family born after slavery, carried on this family tradition of community involvement by opening his Christian bookstore in Jackson during the Great Depression.
Today, Primm continues this tradition through the family business. As the owner for 15 years, Primm has expanded the store’s offering to include more books on Black history and culture. Marshall’s teaches history programs in Jackson’s schools and at the store, and has helped with advocacy campaigns
“Life becomes a mission, for it’s the roots that (Marshall) planted, the seeds that she planted,” Primm said. “We would understand that it is necessary not to live selfishly, but to live in a way that the world is a better place than we have lived here.”
“I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE EVERYBODY”
Tommye Morris said it was a revelation that led her and her husband James Morris to open their store, Milestone Christian Bookstore, in Pearl in 1995. It was an extension of the ministry: James Morris is the pastor of Christ-Anointed Church in Jackson.
“We could provide information, a place of resources, for people curious about the word, wanting to know more,” said Tommye Morris. “The only way to do that is to study. There must be a place where people can get study materials. We wanted to offer this place.
The Bible, the world’s most read book, is of course their bestseller, but prayer books and greeting cards are also popular.
Their customers know that when they come to shop they can also pray, either with the Morris or by leaving a note in the prayer request box.
“In addition to providing general resources for people to study the word of God or to have a way to better understand his word, we serve another purpose, and that is to be a loving black presence in the community,” he said. said Tommye Morris.
WoW is a secular bookstore with a similar dedication to the community. Kimble sees it as a place where kids can find something to do.
Before even opening up her physical space, Kimble participated in events like a community baby shower focused on addressing the health disparities that plague black mothers.
Kimble isn’t very worried 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 country, I’ve been to a lot of places and I really want people to know that this type of culture is here,” Kimble said. “I can’t wait to see everyone.”
WONDERS OF THE WORLD BOOKS AND TOYS STORE
Where: 1520 29th Ave., Suite 3, Gulfport MS 39501
Hours: Hours vary, so check the store’s Facebook page for the latest information.