by Carolyn Bick
When Vickie Williams died in 2017 of a pericardial effusion, her godson, Hassan Messiah El, slid into the role of managing L.E.M.S. Bookstore, the last Black-owned bookstore in the Pacific Northwest that’s focused on the African Diaspora.
But things weren’t easy financially, and Messiah El found himself struggling to make ends meet at the bookstore, while juggling a family and two other jobs as an actor and ecommerce merchant on Amazon.
So, along with Estelita’s Library curator Edwin Lindo, Messiah El started a GoFundMe page for the store on Feb. 25, with the aim of raising $75,000. He didn’t expect the response.
“That’s pretty amazing. I’m actually looking at it right now — it’s at $34,787,” Messiah El said, as he looked at the fundraiser page on his phone.
As of the writing of this article, the page has raised more than $40,000 in just 17 days.
Lindo said the money would cover rent for a year, as well as the cost to build out additional infrastructure and a coworking space for people of color. He said the monthly rent is $3,000, which also covers utilities, and that the cost to create additional space would come to about $25,000. The remainder would go towards creating a financial cushion for the bookstore, just in case.
Messiah El said he wants to use the space as more than just a bookstore. He said he wants to create book clubs.
“People aren’t reading as much as they used to,” Messiah El said. “Books don’t seem to be pushed on the public as much as they used to, and they have never been pushed on my people.”
He also wants to continue to use the store as a community gathering space but expand it to include “more than just my own Black community.” At the same time, he said, it will remain what it always has been: a bookstore focused on the African Diaspora, and a place to highlight Black excellence.
To further that goal, Messiah El wants to use some of the money to start holding Black-centric art shows and musical gatherings and bring in teachers for classes covering everything from sign language to health to acting and film.
He also wants to shepherd the bookstore into the 21st century by buying computers for the community to use, but also by bringing the bookstore online. He said the latter would help ensure the bookstore’s future wouldn’t be imperiled and allow it to become more profitable.
“I would be able to adapt and keep up, and it would be a smooth transition to adapting to more recent times, and what’s going on now,” Messiah El said.
Lindo also said he and Messiah El are planning use some of the space for another branch of Estelita’s Library, which focuses on social justice and people of color.
“The plan is to have a barista, have some coffee, tea, some pastries – just something, again, to bring folks in to contribute, support the space,” Lindo said.
While it wouldn’t come from the money currently being raised to fund the bookstore, Messiah El also said he’d like to establish a nonprofit in Williams’ name in the future.
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Featured Image by Alex Garland.