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Black-owned children’s bookstore taps into unmet need

Jeffrey and Pamela Blair pose for a portrait at EyeSee Me.
File photo| Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Jeffrey and Pamela Blair are the co-owners of EyeSeeMe African American Children's Bookstore in University City.

At a bookstore in University City, young people of color can crack open a book and see themselves as doctors, superheroes, historical figures and even princesses.

Jeffrey and Pamela Blair are the co-owners of the EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore. Jeffrey said he knew there was a need for the store long before they opened their doors in 2015. As they were homeschooling their children, Jeffrey said it was a challenge to find books and educational resources that were reflective of their children and their own experiences.

“It was really difficult to find materials that had positive black images,” Jeffrey Blair said. “And that's whether you're talking about history, whether you're talking about science, you're talking Bible, or any topic that we would get into.”

So the Blairs decided to create their own. Pamela wrote a couple biblical books, and Jeffrey created a historical timeline game. Jeffrey said not long after, they noticed a difference in their kids and how they were learning.

“That foundation we saw actually translated into giving them a real positive self-esteem, a clarity about a lot of even current events that are taking place, and a real excitement about learning,” Jeffrey said. “And to translate that into them doing very well in school. Eventually they transferred from homeschooling to the public school system and did exceptionally well.”

Brandon Wooten, 11, picks out books for summer reading at EyeSee Me.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Brandon Wooten, 11, picks out books for summer reading at EyeSee Me.

Because the Blairs believe that education starts with self, they decided to expand their mission to help other parents who wanted the same thing for their kids. Pamela said since opening EyeSeeMe she's seen firsthand how the reflective images in a book can resonate with kids, especially when little black girls see characters with natural hair.

“The hair is a big thing for young girls going to school,” Pamela said. “Not having hair like maybe their classmate, and they may think themselves as being ugly or not having the right hair. So we have a lot of books on hair and feeling comfortable in the hair that you have. So for our children it means a lot.”

And when "Black Panther" hit the big screen, Pamela noticed more kids flocking to their graphic-novel section to pick up a copy of the graphic-novel series. She said the strong response is in part because they could identify with the characters.

“They go in straight to that book or that book, because it makes them feel good,” Pamela said. “Not just because it's a superhero, because for the first time there's someone that is doing like magical things, and I can relate to him and he looks like me, and he's in charge of his own life.”

Kiera Cross has come to the bookstore several times with her 1-year-old daughter, Skylar. She said as a teacher and a parent, it’s important that her daughter can have a place to see others who look like her at a young age.

“I remember growing up I didn't have a store like this where I got to see myself, and I want her to see herself all of the time,” Cross said.

In recent years, the store has garnered national attention thanks to Sidney Keys III, who heads Books n Bros Reading Club. The club got its start because of a viral video of Keys getting lost in the book “Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinary” while at the store. The club, now based in Ferguson, started with seven boys and has since grown to more than 100. Pamela said that was a big deal.

“There's some connection with our children and them seeing themselves and them loving who they're seeing, what they're seeing,” Pamela said. “The stories are positive. They are the hero of the story. They are the main character of the story. He enjoyed it so much, and it resonated with a lot of parents and other children.”

While the store is geared towards children, it also carries a few books and posters for adults. The Blairs say often adults are just as excited to see themselves in books as the kids. With such high demand, the Blairs say they’re planning to move the store to a larger location in August.

When they do, they will expand the young-adult and adult sections.

Follow Marissanne on Twitter: @Marissanne2011

Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.