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Kansas City bookstore opening on Juneteenth seeks to amplify Black and brown voices

·3 min read

Cori Smith grew up reading Black writers such as Bell Hooks, Assata Shakur and Toni Morrison. Now, she’s selling their books.

Smith is bringing what began as an online store to the Midtown-Westport area. Located on West 39th Street between Broadway Boulevard and Main Street, BLK + BRWN will offer titles from Black and brown authors across genres, including sci-fi, romance, spirituality, self-care, comedy and nonfiction.

But the knowledge present at BLK + BRWN extends beyond physical pages.

Dubbing it a smart bookstore, Smith is using technology to supplement readers’ experiences. By scanning a book with a smartphone, readers can read the book summary, find the cost and explore relevant materials, like videos, speeches or playlists — all curated by Smith.

The smart bookstore planned to open its doors Saturday, intentionally coinciding with Juneteenth and falling within Pride month.

“It felt very important and intentional to bring awareness about Black queerness and brown queerness and Black liberation,” Smith said. “June to me is a month about freedom for all of those reasons.”

Before running the bookstore full time, Smith was the program director at Justice in the Schools, a project offering free legal services to students and families in the Kansas City and Hickman Mills school districts.

Her fixation with books began at West Wyandotte Library in Kansas City, Kansas, where she spent long hours with her mom and brother from a young age. There, she checked out books about the civil rights movement, read about Black liberation and pored over activists’ biographies.

“I always was surrounded by Black and brown literature. And so I always was just very interested in Black books, Black authors, stories about people that look like me. And so that’s kind of been steadfast throughout my life,” Smith said.

Every title in the store is a book Smith has either read or planned on reading. Of the over 100 offerings at BLK + BRWN, she’s read a little more than half of them. More books are available online, and Smith said she will be adding new titles frequently.

Besides sharing her favorites, Smith said her collection of books is an effort to acquaint readers with genres they may not typically associate with Black writers.

Cori Smith sits in her new bookstore BLK + BRWN, Friday, June 18, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo.
Cori Smith sits in her new bookstore BLK + BRWN, Friday, June 18, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo.

“I’m also trying to incorporate other books — just different genres that I feel like a lot of Black and brown people don’t necessarily see or get a chance to experience from other Black and brown authors,” Smith said. “Suspense and thrillers are things that I don’t necessarily associate with Black and brown authors or stories that will have a character that looks like me.”

When she chose BLK + BRWN’s location, Smith said she was also thinking about accessibility to Black and brown readers.

“I really, really wanted it to be in a neighborhood that felt very Black and brown. And it was very intentional for me to find a space where I could still get my foot in and still be surrounded by people within my community.”

Like the store’s opening on Juneteenth, Smith said it was fitting that BLK + BRWN found itself in its location on West 39th Street.

“This was perfect. Right next door to me, there’s a barber shop that is predominantly Black and brown. And then on the other side of them is an African braiding salon. It just made sense. It was really good alignment that it just happened this way,” Smith said.

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