WORDS BY SAMANTHA SENCER-MURA
In June of 2020, Dionne Sims tweeted about the lack of Black bookstores in Minnesota. Namely, that at that moment, there were none. The tweet clearly met the moment and resonated with the community, and within weeks Sims had raised over $100,000 to build the store. Two years later, Sims opened the store in St. Paul, and Black Garnet is a space of collective resilience and intentionality. I spoke with Sims to learn more about her journey as founder, the history of Black bookstores in Minnesota, and what titles she is most drawn to at the moment.
How do you see Black Garnet books as connected to the history/lineage of Black bookstores in the Twin Cities and nationwide? Who/where are some of your inspirations?
I think something that confused me in 2020 when I was looking into starting Black Garnet Books is that the number of Black-owned bookstores was increasing nationally for years before then, and yet was slowly declining to zero in Minnesota during that same time. Black business owners in Minnesota have felt the repercussions of redlining, racial covenants, and gentrification for decades. The pocket of time between there being no Black bookstores and there being Black Garnet and Strive Books is a product of Minnesota’s historical treatment of Black people, but the time after our start is a product of our collective resiliency. I’m inspired by all the cool, rad Black women around the country that I saw starting bookstores in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles between 2015 and 2020. I knew if they could do it in the face of the systemic racism in those cities, I could do it too.
How has the internet/social media been a part of the building of Black Garnet? What has it been like to build this in the public eye?
Social media is where I first mentioned wanting to create this store, and it’s where I found support and guidance for making it happen. I’ve always valued social media as a method of platforming those of us with marginalized identities and experiences, and I also know firsthand how terrible and just, like, violent it can be up on that platform. I eventually deleted and/or left my personal social media accounts a few months before the opening of the store because of targeted, racist harassment I was facing after speaking about my life experiences as a Black woman in America. I don’t regret it at all! I knew, since bookstores are community hubs, that I would see all the folks I wanted to keep up with during my work. Plus, we still do pop-ups around the cities so the community-building aspect I got from social media is still present, just in person.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Councilmember Mitra Jalali and the city of St. Paul? What has this partnership meant to you?
Councilmember Jalali has been an absolute champion for Black Garnet since the start, and that really solidified once I found this ideal location in Ward 4 and started wondering about potential grants. She really stepped up and was like, “I will do whatever I can to make this happen,” and she meant it. And for me, it felt really validating to know someone I’d watched be so committed to and transparent with the folks of St. Paul vouch that my work was community-backed and that I was invested in the well-being of both the Cities, but especially St. Paul (I’m from Minneapolis but I live in St. Paul now, and love it here). And for the city to agree was amazing. We wouldn’t have been able to open such a gorgeous brick-and-mortar space without the Neighborhood STAR Grant we received from them, which covered much of the permanent construction done to the space. I’m really grateful!
How does your work support Black mental health and wellness?
This might be a really specific experience: when I visit bookstores with aisles of books you have to walk down, where no one can see you unless they walk past the front of the aisle and look down it, I always felt really uncomfortable. Shopping while Black is a masterclass in making yourself visible enough that people don’t think you’re stealing, but not so out of the ordinary that you’re attracting attention. And on the employee side, you feel like you have to peek into those aisles periodically and awkwardly be like, “You doing OK?” Either way, it’s uncomfortable. My bookstore doesn’t have any aisles. It’s open, with all the shelving along the walls. I’ve had many people, but especially Black people, comment on how much they love how open the space is. We get a lot of comments about how comforting it is being helped by a Black and BIPOC staff. It’s covered in plants. There’s a Black woman who lives above the store and loves to come feed the plants and chat with us. Supporting Black mental health and wellness, for me, was about more than just carrying books regarding it—which, of course, we also do. It’s also about making sure Black people feel positive about being in the store. And overwhelmingly, that’s the case.
What is most exciting for you right now in the Twin Cities literary world?
Black publishers! Wise Ink and Strive Publishing, for example. I attended a writer’s retreat they put on and it really showed me how important it is that we be given opportunities to craft and share our stories. I hope they continue to grow. It’s so exciting to see them exist.
What is next for you and Black Garnet?
Besides surviving the holiday season? Hopefully utilizing our space for more events next year! Whether it be author signings, poetry readings, different classes, etc. The few times we’ve gotten to host events since opening two months ago have filled me with so much warmth.
What are three titles at Black Garnet you are excited about right now?
Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey because it’s pretty relevant to how I operate. Frizzy by Claribel A. Ortega, which is a really sweet middle-grade graphic novel about a young girl who chooses to stop straightening her curls. Tread of Angels by Rebecca Roanhorse…it’s a historical fantasy with mystery/detective elements and I’m excited to read it because she’s an absolutely incredible world-builder of fantasy!
Anything else you want readers to know?
Books aren’t dead! Shop independent bookstores, listen to audiobooks through Libro.FM and ditch Audible, read e-books on kindle alternatives, get a library card even if you rarely go to the library…screw Amazon!
WHEN YOU GO
Black Garnet Books
1319 University Ave. W., St. Paul