Historic L.E.M.S Bookstore Reopens

by Chamidae Ford

Located on Rainier Avenue South, in the heart of Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, the historic Life Enrichment Bookstore (L.E.M.S) has officially reopened its doors. 

Founded by Vickie Williams over 20 years ago as a bookstore and cultural hub for people to gather, it is one of two Black-owned bookstores in the state. The Vanishing Seattle blog detailed ways L.E.M.S has created an environment for the local community to come together: “[It] held space for African church services, recovery groups, job training for formerly incarcerated folks, and holiday and Kwanzaa bazaars for #blackowned businesses.” For many years, Dr. Maxine Mimms facilitated a monthly community gathering at the bookstore to teach Black history.

Following Williams’ death in March 2017, the bookstore was forced to close, but the location continued as an event space. Williams’ godson, Hassan Messiah, has been working to reopen and achieve historic preservation status for L.E.M.S based on its significance to the South Seattle community. Last year, Williams’ granddaughter and Hassan’s niece, Sister Tylicia Messiah, joined the team working to reopen L.E.M.S.

Vickie Williams standing outside Life Enrichment Bookstore in 2014 (photo: Susan Fried)

“I realized what was happening with the bookstore and how connected everybody was with L.E.M.S and that community. So I committed my everything, it became my passion, it became something that I wanted to commit to helping my family with,” Sister Tylicia Messiah said. 

Despite numerous relocations over its lifetime, L.E.M.S has managed to consistently inspire and support the community, creating a dedicated base of supporters. A GoFundMe page raised over $90,000, greatly surpassing its original $75,000 goal. These funds will provide L.E.M.S the ability to continue to broaden their horizons. 

“We are moving it into a new era. We are taking the torch, and now we are going forward with it; keeping the history of the store, the legacy of the store, alive,” Hassan Messiah said. “It’s the biggest space that we’ve had, with the most opportunity for people to gather.”  

The journey to reopening has been a long one, fraught with obstacles: from raising funds, to air quality issues, and now adapting the business model to COVID-19. When COVID-19 hit and the grand opening was delayed, they turned towards other outlets to bring books to their community. They spent most of the summer as vendors at outdoor events, a practice Williams established decades ago and the Messiahs committed to continue. 

“When we weren’t really able to open the space because of social distance protocols, I started to go and do outdoor vending events in our community,” Sister Tylicia Messiah said.

L.E.M.S has also been working with local schools to provide children with books written about, by, and for Black people. 

While books are the legacy of L.E.M.S, so is the community space, and the reopening team is looking to expand on that in 2021 when Sister Tylicia Messiah will launch a female-focused media space/studio, called Safe and Sound, to provide women a space to work on music. 

“[It will be a] safe space for women to learn about digitizing their music and becoming music sound techs,” Messiah said, “to give them a safe space without being over-sexualized by their male peers. It’s definitely a big issue right now, and always has been for women who are doing music.”

Hassan Messiah stressed the bookstore aspect of L.E.M.S will always live on, even while continuing to provide a gathering space.

L.E.M.S is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Fridays from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. They will be expanding their business hours in the coming weeks.

L.E.M.S provides masks for customers and adheres to social distancing requirements, so customers are free to come and browse. 

Check out their website here.

Chamidae Ford is currently a senior journalism major at the University of Washington. Born and raised in Western Washington, she has a passion for providing a voice to the communities around her. She has written for The Daily, GRAY Magazine, and Capitol Hill Seattle.

Featured image by Susan Fried.