Photo depicting the blue Sistah Sci-Fi vending machine beside a coffee shop bar.

Sistah Scifi’s Book Vending Machine Comes to the Northwest African American Museum

by Jas Keimig

Tucked into a corner in Shoreline’s Black-owned Black Coffee Northwest (BCNW), sits a bright blue and purple vending machine. This vending machine isn’t like other vending machines, stuffed with stale Fritos and old Rice Krispie treats. Instead, it’s filled with science-fiction books by Black authors — just swipe your credit card, and a book by Nichelle Nichols or Octavia Butler is all yours. 

This vending machine comes to BCNW courtesy of Sistah Scifi, an organization dedicated to connecting readers with science fiction, fantasy, and graphic novels written by Black women and non-binary authors. And, soon, South Seattle will get its own Sistah Scifi vending machine. On June 17, as part of their Juneteenth celebration, Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) will officially debut its own Sistah Scifi vending machine at the museum. It marks a further expansion of Sistah Scifi founder Isis Asare’s online Black bookstore concept, bringing it from the internet to real life.

Oakland-based Asare first started Sistah Scifi back in 2018 after discussing Octavia Butler’s germinal science-fiction novel Lillith’s Brood with a friend. This friend asked her if she knew other prominent Black science-fiction writers Nnedi Okorafor and Tomi Adeyemi — Asare didn’t. “I felt like I missed a couple memos, and I had been a [regular] reader of Black literature,” Asare said in a phone interview. “So I was like, nobody else is going to miss the memo.” 

This kicked off Sistah Scifi’s journey. With a goal to double the number of Black speculative fiction authors on the New York Times Best Sellers list by 2030, Asare quickly assembled a formidable collection of Black science-fiction books and launched an online bookstore where Black readers — and everyone else — could more easily access these stories. Today, the site features hundreds of books: everything from sci-fi giant Octavia Butler masterpieces to Black Panther comics to books written by the authors like Janelle Monae. 

As the website grew an online following, Asare constantly fielded questions from readers about a physical, brick-and-mortar location for Sistah Scifi. And, starting earlier this year, she finally had an answer: book vending machines. Easy to restock, self-serving, and just cool, Asare installed three of these machines in Washington and California in Black woman-owned coffee shops in February: Oakland Cafe and Bakery in Oakland, Mixed: Coffee and Community in Mill Creek, and Black Coffee Northwest in Shoreline, Octavia Butler’s chosen home. 

For Darnesha Weary, co-owner and co-founder of BCNW, the Sistah Scifi vending machines have made a tangible difference in their café patrons. Weary says she sees lots of young readers and their parents come in to pick up book after book. “Our customers love it,” she said. “I see them looking, taking pictures, researching books.” Asare curates each machine to reflect the community it resides in. And for the Shoreline coffeehouse, that means the vending machine is filled with works by Butler. In 1999, the writer moved to the Shoreline-Lake Forest Park area where she spent the rest of her life, reading and writing novels, and both BCNW and Asare wanted to highlight that connection.

“We’re in Shoreline and there’s not a lot of [Black] representation, so for [customers] to have access to Black authors, Black books, and a vending machine that was founded and launched by a Black woman in a Black business — it means a lot,” said Weary. “It means we are providing access to books and reading and authors.” 

Soon, readers will have the same opportunity at the Northwest African American Museum, which reopened to the public in January of this year. The museum plans to place a Sistah Scifi machine of its own in its community living room near the gift shop. If people want to access it, they don’t have to buy a ticket to the museum, just show up during NAAM’s open hours. To NAAM operations director Ashanti Davis, a self-proclaimed “sci-fi nerd,” the vending machine represents a huge opportunity to connect young people with Black sci-fi stories. 

“There are so many of us who as children didn’t get to see people who look like us in popular media and in this larger kind of cultural narrative,” said Davis about the representation of Black folks in science fiction. “I think it perpetuates a narrative of Black people not being in these spaces when in fact, we are and we have been for a long time.”

Because NAAM focuses on Black communities in the Northwest — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming — the books chosen for the vending machine will reflect authors born or living in this region as well. Of course, Butler’s work will be widely represented with titles like Fledgling and Mind of My Mind, as well as graphic novel renditions of Kindred and Parable of the Sower. But readers can also pick up Nisi Shawl’s Everfair, a steampunk novel set in Central Africa, or Somaiya Daud’s YA fantasy epic Mirage. It’s an excellent opportunity for curious readers to get exposed to different types of stories. 

“I’m excited to get other people excited about science fiction and science fiction writers and these themes of fantasy and Afrofuturism, centering Blackness and Black stories and Black people,” said Davis. “I’m excited for children to see themselves reflected on the covers of books and graphic novels and to know that these are spaces that we inhabit and are alive here at the Northwest African American Museum in the Pacific Northwest region.”

Jas Keimig is a writer and critic based in Seattle. They previously worked on staff at The Stranger, covering visual art, film, music, and stickers. Their work has also appeared in Crosscut, South Seattle Emerald, i-D, Netflix, and The Ticket. They also co-write Unstreamable for Scarecrow Video, a column and screening series highlighting films you can’t find on streaming services. They won a game show once.

📸 Featured Image: A Sistah Sci-Fi vending machine like this one located at Black Coffee Northwest in Shoreline will soon debut at the Northwest African American Museum. (Photo: Jas Keimig)

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