Nyshell Lawrence read her first book by a Black author in the second grade: “Roots” by Alex Haley.
“Something about it intrigued me and I wanted to take it home,” she said. “I know in second grade I could not understand all the complex things that happened in the story, but just the idea that I had this huge book written about Black people was major for me.”
But as she grew up, she struggled to find books about Black culture that didn’t focus on pain, slavery or other trauma, she said.
On a 2017 date to a bookstore with her husband, the couple left empty-handed, unable to find books that contained the natural inclusion of Black people. She said the selection of books by Black women was particularly dismal.
“We spent the rest of the evening talking about how we could create something that would be for Black women that would celebrate us,” Lawrence said. “That’s where the idea and the concept of Socialight Society came from and came about.”
And so Lawrence started gathering friends and peers for a book club. She curated the reading list herself — all books by Black women — which the group met online to discuss.
As her club grew over the summer, Lawrence started buying through Bookshop.org, an online retailer that supports independent booksellers. She sold books at pop-up shops at Afterglow Market, Social Sloth Café and at the Lansing Mall.
Now, she’s opening a space inside Soul Nutrition, a smoothie and tea shop at 222 S. Washington Square in downtown Lansing.
She’ll host an RSVP-only grand opening from 5 to 7 p.m. Nov. 13, then open full-time 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturdays.
Lawrence curates the books she sells from her personal collections and makes recommendations to book club members.
“Socialight Society is really big on making sure that women — specifically Black women — feel seen and feel celebrated,” Lawrence said.
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Lawrence’s shop isn’t the only store-within-a-store, or “microshop,” new to downtown Lansing. Just down the street is A Novel Concept, another shop for new and gently used books in Middle Village Micro Market, a pop-up by the nonprofit Downtown Lansing Inc.
The two micoshops are a “testament to the environment” of the downtown neighborhood, said DLI Executive Director Cathleen Edgerly. The store-within-a-store concept allows retail-focused entrepreneurs to build a customer base while managing low overhead costs.
“People have been asking for a downtown bookstore, and as downtown continues to evolve, this is meeting those needs,” she said. “It’s giving them an entertainment and literary outlet.”
Kim Milton-Mackey runs Dreams and Visions Manifested, a nonprofit sponsor of Socialight Society. She helped Lawrence book space at both Afterglow Market and Soul Nutrition this year, and is working to raise $10,000 for a brick-and-mortar store. Lawrence is also collaborating with Lost Girl Vision and UR Blends Tea for the shop.
“We’ve done a lot of work in regards to those of African American descent who don’t have the reflection in their stories and in schools,” she said. “If you had to get a book, then you probably have to go on Amazon or elsewhere. To have a space in the community where you can read and share about books with others is empowering.”
Milton-Mackey also said the shop fills the need for additional library-like spaces downtown. She recalled her own library visits at a young age — getting excited after reading a title — and hopes Lawrence’s bookstore gives that experience to young people today.
To that end, Socialight Society intentionally targets all age groups. Lawrence stocks titles ranging from children’s books to young adult novels and classics. The books rotate based the season and current events.
“Sometimes there just may not be knowledge that these (titles) exist,” she said. “Perhaps we don’t know that there’s a Black author that wrote about this certain topic. This space makes that visible for everyone.”
Edgerly said Lawrence’s plan to stock books by locals gives those writers a place to be recognized in their community, especially in the state capital, where workers often flood downtown for lunch.
“This is now a meeting space where individuals can have some commonality and a place where it’s not tension or anger,” Milton-Mackey said. “It’s a space where people can go into that reflects them.”
Contact reporter Krystal Nurse at (517) 267-1344 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @KrystalRNurse.