Category Archives: Indie Spotlight

Indie Spotlight: Iseeme African American Children’s Bookstore, University City, MO

We’re talking today with Jeff Blair , so-owner with his wife Pamela of a unique children’s bookstore emphasizing African American heritage and culture.  Learn here how they’ve made their vision a reality.

MUF:There’s a lot of attention being paid lately to the need for children to see themselves in the books they read. You reflect that in the very title of your shop, which is dedicated to bringing positive books about African American people and culture to young readers. Tell us a bit about how you got started in this business.
Jeff: : We are parents of four lovely children; Jeff Jr., Naomi, Sarah, & Ezra. Together, we have created EyeSeeMe based on our years of experience raising four high achieving children. Our children have been tested in gifted programs; participated in leadership conferences; selected for public speaking engagements. Jeff Jr. started college at 15 years old, has a Masters Degree from Rutgers University, and is currently applying to medical School. My 3 youngest all just attend Washington University in Saint Louis. Many ask, how did we do it?
Our children were always inquisitive. After history class they would often run home and recite the many stories they learned about the great men and women of the past. But, they often seemed to have a presumption that their own heritage began at slavery. Yet, we could tell that they yearned for historical stories that included themselves as heroes, victors, founders, creators, and contributors to society. There yearning forced us to do our own research and make an effort to find books and stories about Black contributions to society.
We knew that if we could instill within our children a pride in their heritage and awareness of the great accomplishments of their forefathers that this would be the foundation that would allow them to grow into their full potential. (This has been confirmed by some recent research: Read Here)
As we began to explore our vast heritage together as a family, we could see the excitement in our children’s souls as they embraced their nearly lost legacy. This excitement for learning transferred into their studies.
As our children grew we saw them approach school with purpose and a clear understanding that they are truly “standing on the shoulders of giants” and have a responsibility to do their best in everything that they do. Others noticed their achievements and upon inquiry we shared our games and products with them as well. Over the years we have had numerous responses from parents and teachers alike, that our products have been instrumental in helping children realize their full potential by seeing themselves in history.
Two years ago my wife and I created EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore in order to help bridge the cultural divide, so that African American children can benefit from exposure to literature that respectfully mirrors themselves, their culture and their families. EyeSeeMe, is the only children’s bookstore devoted exclusively to promoting positive African American Images and African American History while advocating for Academic Excellence. We too believe that all children can learn, regardless of their socioeconomic status, race, or gender. We believe that the African American achievement gap can be eliminated. More importantly we believe that competent, caring, and properly supported teachers and parents are essential to student learning. EyeseeMe is here to help provide that support.
MUF: There may not be enough books published by or about about African Americans, but there certainly are a lot of really good ones, and you seem to carry them all! What are some favorite titles, new or old, fiction or nonfiction, that you find yourself recommending to middle-graders these days?
Jeff: Wow, this is a tough question because we have many favorites. But a few that come to mind: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson, Copper Sun by Sharon Draper, Crossover by Kwame Alexander, Eddie Red Undercover Series by Marcia Wells, One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano by Ann Cameron, and The Clone Codes Series by the McKissacks.
MUF:What kinds of books would you like to see more of?
Jeff: We would like to see more books written of adventure stories of PreColonial Africa, such as the stories of Mansa Musa, the Moors, and the Israelites in Africa.
MUF: Are you hoping children (and their adults) from other groups will be drawn to your shop as a place to learn about African American life and history, too?
Jeff: Absolutely! When we first started Eyeseeme we were focused solely on ensuring that African Americans saw themselves in the books that they read. But, we soon realized that ALL Children (and their parents and teachers) need an accurate and positive portrayal of African Americans and their contributions to society and the world. Otherwise people can draw false conclusions about Black people and can fall prey to stereotyping and prejudice.

MUF: Please tell us about some of the educational materials and activities you have developed for your store. I notice on your website that your flashcards on African American heroes are sold out!
Jeff: Yes, in addition to books we also carry games, flash cards, dolls and toys that all support our mission of promoting literacy and academic excellence, positive African American Images, and African American History.
MUF: Please tell us about BooksandBros. Any more activities planned for the future that would be of special interest to ages 8-12? Something for girls?
Writing workshops to get some more African American writers started?
Jeff: Check out a video about Books N Bros from HEC-TV, Higher Education Channel: https://youtu.be/9sKuaeI4SbI Moreover, we host a Boys STEM Club called Circle of Excellence. We are in the process of launching additional afterschool/weekend reading and history classes for Middle School students.
MUF: If a family from out of town visited your store, would there be family-friendly places nearby where they could get a snack or meal after shopping? And if they could stay awhile, are there some unique sites or activities nearby that they shouldn’t miss?
Jeff: Certainly, we are located in University City, which is the central crossroads in the Saint Louis region. We specifically chose University City as the home for Eyeseeme for this reason. It is home to the Delmar Loop, an entertainment, cultural and restaurant district. Upon visiting Saint Louis I would suggest checking out the Missouri History Museum located in Forest Park; the Old Historic Court House, home of the famous Dred Scott case, and the Griot Museum of Black History.

Thanks, Jeff and Pamela, for creating this store and sharing its story with us.  Readers, have any of you visited this shop?  Not yet?

Indie Spotlight: Blue Willow Bookshop, Houston TX

Sue Cowing for Mixed-Up Files:  What an interesting idea:  a bookstore devoted half to kid’s books and half to adult! We are talking today with Valerie Koehler, Owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston.

MUF: I assume your shop gets its name from Blue Willow, the award-winning novel by Doris Gates?  Sounds like you’ve had children’s books  in mind from the beginning.
Valerie: I was not aware of the lovely book by Doris Gates when I named the shop.  But just like in her novel, the shop is named after Blue Willow china. When I bought the shop, I wanted to offer books for the entire family. so now it’s half and half.  Our top two selling categories are adult fiction and children’s picture books.

school visit

MUF:You’ve been open twenty years now and you survived the downturn several years ago when many bookstores closed.  What has contributed to your success?  What kind of atmosphere do you try to create for customers at Blue Willow Books?
Valerie: We never saw the downturn as we plowed ahead with new ideas, new partnerships, and lots of events.  I feel our success is due to our open minds to new opportunities.  We want everyone to feel welcome and we want to continue to spread our love of books through the city.  We venture far beyond our walls with school visits and our three yearly festivals.

MUF:Tell us more about your monthly book club, “Another Shade of Blue” for middle-grade girls.  What have been some of their favorite books, and what will they be reading in June?  
Valerie:It’s been a slow start to this club and we are retooling it as I write this.  It’s so hard to get critical mass when the kids are overbooked.  They loved The Green Glass House By Kate Milford. In June, they are reading Beyond The Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk.

MUF: How do you choose which books to carry in your shop?
Valerie: I read advance copies, I look at reviews, I look at trends and past sales.  It’s an art and a science (and a crap shoot!).

MUF: How do you help kids find their next best book? As middle-grade authors, we’d love to know what titles, old or new, fiction or nonfiction, you find yourself recommending most often these days to readers between eight and twelve?
Valerie We tend to recommend stand-alone novels as the kids already know the series.  All of us like different books!  This past year, we all loved PAX by Sara Pennypacker.  But each kid deserves to be different so we help them one at a time.

Tweens Read Festival

Gene Luen Yang & Fan at Tweens Read Festival

MUF: Do you have any events coming up that would be of special interest to middle-graders?
Valerie: We are retooling the bookclub so stay tuned.  Also, put October 21st on the calendar for our 8th annual Tweens Read Festival.  The authors will be announced very soon. Last year we hosted over 3000 kids.
MUF: If a family from out of town visited your shop, would there be family-friendly places in the neighborhood where they could get a snack or meal after shopping?  And if they could stay longer, are there some unique sites and activities in the area they shouldn’t miss?
Valerie:
We have a great patisserie in our center which is kid friendly.  Just down the street is Hungry’s which has food for the whole family.  For longer visits I like to recommend visiting www.houstonfamilymagazine.com for great Houston ideas.

Thanks, Valerie, for talking with us about Blue Willow Books, and congratulations on your continuing success!  Readers, have any of you had the pleasure of visiting this shop?  Putting it on your list?