Bookstore In Springfield, Mass., Offers Good Reads And Community

Sep 24, 2020

Walking into Olive Tree Books-n-Voices on Hancock Street in Springfield, Massachusetts, is like walking into someone’s home. It's one of only a few Black-owned bookstores in the state.

Johnson opened her store about 15 years ago in the city's Mason Square neighborhood.

Room after room of what was once a house is filled with books, categorized by topic.

It's very cozy, and before offering some recommendations for our Books For Young People series, Johnson gave a tour of the store, starting in the café — a small kitchen-like room with a few high tables and chairs. 

Zee Johnson, owner: This is pretty much the core of the bookstore, meaning that folks come in and converse about books. They feel safe here, they can voice their opinions, they meet folks in the community.

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: Who comes here? Who are your customers?

I have a variety of customers — seniors, those who are 60 and older, because that's a population that really likes the hardcover book. So they know here, they can touch it, they can open it.

Then we have grandparents, who bring their grandchildren here to pick out books and also to reflect what an African American business looks like.

Then we have young adults who just want to come and hang out: "I got my tablet. I got my Wi-Fi. I can also listen to music while I'm here, but I can also read and have an understanding of what's going on in the world, too."

With the pandemic, we have limited hours on Saturday and Sunday, and we also have limited customers in the store. But as a result of, you know, the climate on race, we were able to meet new customers. And because I am an African American bookstore, many, many, many institutions, school systems, folks in the region — not just in Springfield — reached out to me.

Is it a more-diverse-than-you-expected customer base now, or has it always been diverse?

It is – which I'm glad, because what that says to me is that we are having a conversation, and what's good about the new customer base is they are bringing children in.

Zee Johnson says among popular books this year is "Antiracist Baby," a board book by Ibram X. Kendi.
Credit Illustration by Ashley Lukashevsky / Kokila / Penguin Young Readers

What are you suggesting? What's out this year, or recently, for little ones? You know, elementary school age?

People are buying "Antiracist Baby." It’s a board book, and it's by Ibram Kendi — and you know him from all the "How to Be an Antiracist" series.

And then another one of my favorites is "Not Quite Snow White." I don't know if you're familiar with this, but this is written by Ashley Franklin. And I just love this story, because it shows that when you're talented and you have gifts, and you're allowed to use them, that you can prosper and grow.

Another one is "Just Ask!" by [Supreme Court Justice] Sonia Sotomayor. So her book is really about — it's okay to be different, it's okay to come to a group with different skills. Everybody doesn't have to be alike. You know, you bring your ideas and don't be afraid to share your ideas.

And then "New Shoes" by Susan Lynn Meyer. This is a historical book about back in the '50s, when African Americans were not allowed to try on shoes in a department store.

This story is about two little girls who decided it was not acceptable and they decided to polish used shoes and actually give them back to the community, so that the community could try on shoes and really have a successful pair of shoes.

This children's room is so comfortable and sweet. Could you describe it?

So — it is brightness. You know, it is safety. It is fun. It's a room in which it's OK to touch books. It's a room in which it's OK, if you want, to crawl on the floor, if you want to sit on the floor. You know, it's really your room as a child.

Like the rest of the bookstore, the children's room at Olive Tree Books-n-Voices is designed for comfort, and for kids to stay awhile, says owner Zee Johnson.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPM

You must miss that there are not little ones in here.

I do. I really do miss the discussions. I miss the observation of children who find a book that they cannot part with. That's one of my happiest moments where they say, "Mommy, Mommy, I gotta have this book!" And I've had situations where the parent may have said, "Well, I can't afford that at this time." And I say, "She's getting that book."

What does that mean?

That means I’m overruling you as a parent — she's getting that book. And then we kind of chuckle and everything is fine.

And you figure out how that mom is going to pay for it?

No, I don't. That becomes a donation. I don't just sell books. I bring relationships. I bring a ministry. I bring an exchange of information. So I bring something in addition [to] a hardcover book.

Check out more stories in our Books For Young People series.