‘A big [virtual] hug’: St. Louis bookstore owners talk about community support through COVID-19

June 12, 2020 | GET MORE : Social Responsibility

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Funding from U.S. Bank and others has helped EyeSeeMe navigate uncertainty amid the pandemic

Four years after opening a bricks-and-mortar bookstore in the digital age, Jeffrey and Pamela Blair were celebrating the success of their risky bet as they moved into a retail space three times larger to meet customer demand.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and, like so many other businesses, EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore in St. Louis had to temporarily close its doors.

“We were just hitting our stride,” said Jeffrey Blair. 

In 2015, the Blairs had opened EyeSeeMe with the mission to be a resource to parents, teachers, and schools in providing children with books that promote positive images and stories about African American culture and history. 

While raising their four children, the couple realized the difficulty in finding such literature and began to think entrepreneurially, with the encouragement of Pamela’s father Shadrock Porter, about how to make it easier for other parents. Doing so with a bricks-and-mortar space was an intentional decision, Jeffrey said.

“When we opened the store, it was not just about selling books but also about creating community,” he explained. “That’s why we host community gatherings, book fairs, summer classes, student mentoring and more.”

But amid the pandemic, Jeffrey said that programming – and the underlying mission of the bookstore – came under peril “almost overnight.” Although the store does have a digital presence, online sales have been a small percentage of total sales. To help weather the uncertainty, they looked to the community for support.

In addition to a GoFundMe campaign, that support has included a zero-interest loan from nonprofit STL VentureWorks, which is participating in the local Small Business Resource Fund Program activated in response to the pandemic. The program is funded in part by a $50,000 grant through the Market Impact Fund from U.S. Bank.

Typically, the $1 million annual Market Impact Fund provides grants earmarked for the specific programming in the Work, Home and Play pillars through which U.S. Bank focuses its giving. As the pandemic began to hit, however, the company transformed and expedited it in order to infuse cash into nonprofits to support small businesses and more.

“In a time like this, we trust our nonprofit partners to use the grant dollars in whatever way is needed to sustain the life-changing work they do in our communities every day,” U.S. Bank Chief Social Responsibility Officer Reba Dominski said of the shift.

In St. Louis, the funding from U.S. Bank and others is helping the Blairs meet rent obligations for the newly expanded retail space.

When EyeSeeMe is able to safely reopen, the community will be there waiting to stop back in. Among those community members will be local author Chelsea Addison, whose writing is featured in the bookstore.

“EyeSeeMe is a local and national staple,” she said, “and has a forever supporter in me.”

The former elementary teacher is writing a series of books with financial lessons for children. Like the Blairs, Addison was inspired toward entrepreneurship by way of difficulty finding what she was looking for in the market. 

“I noticed a lack of rigorous financial content featuring black children,” she said. “I wanted to contribute a book through which children and families could develop a positive self-image and action steps towards having financial conversations to close wealth and income gaps in a fun and engaging way.”

That type of thinking is aligned with the very mission that led first to the Blairs opening the doors to EyeSeeMe – and thousands of customers doing the same in the five years that have followed.

Now, Jeffrey said that mission has elicited the support necessary to help the bookstore turn the page on the pandemic. 

“[Over the past few months], it has felt like the community has given us a big hug,” he said. 

A virtual hug, that is.

Written by Pat Swanson of U.S. Bank. Learn more about how the company has responded to community needs in response to the pandemic, including a $30 million philanthropic commitment