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Black bookstore marks Juneteenth as special day for nation, own anniversary

UNIVERSITY CITY – Jeffrey and Pamela Blair have two reasons to celebrate on Juneteenth. It’s the day the last slaves were freed and the sixth anniversary of the day they opened their EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore.

They’ll celebrate both with pony rides, a story time, food and games from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday at their store at 6951 Olive Boulevard in University City. Then at 7 p.m. they’ll have the premiere of the movie “Remembering Black Wall Street,” followed by a discussion.

Those in the store on Saturday will mostly see various children’s books on subjects including Juneteenth, as well as book such as the Mary Bowser adventures and “Tristan Strong Destroys the World.” 

High school students and adults also will find books such as “Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921” and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” That section is small compared with the rest of the store, but it’s big compared with the space other bookstores devote to such works.

Jeffrey Blair left his job as a lawyer for the Social Security Administration and Pamela Blair stepped away from her job as a banker to ensure that their children would have the kind of bookstore they needed.

The reason, Jeffrey Blair said, was to fill a gap in the community. 

“Based upon our experience raising our own children, it was not easy to find books that reflected the children, the history of African Americans in this country. But we knew it was vitally important for their education and for their development,” Blair explained. 

“We home schooled,” Pamela Blair said. “And as we were looking for books, we couldn’t find books that had African American characters.”

From that experience came EyeSeeMe. Both Blacks seeking books about themselves and whites who want diversity for their children have become customers.

Today, the store is prospering, so much so that the Blairs are working on opening stores in other cities.

Looking back, Blair said opening the store on Juneteenth in 2015 was purposeful. Juneteenth points to the concept of freedom, he noted.

“The  quote that I’ve heard about is, ‘We’re all not really free until we’re really free.’ Juneteenth is a part of that,” Blair said.

One customer, Anthony Ross, sees the connection between Juneteenth and having an African-American children’s bookstore.

“I think it’s beautiful,” Ross said. “You’re talking about being free physically. And now you have a bookstore, and it frees you mentally. Now you get to unlock yourself, and you read so many different books of so many different perspectives.”

“I hope everyone can really appreciate the day itself and what it really means, and not get too caught up in the celebration,” Ross added. 

Ross discovered the bookstore when his daughter was 3.

“As early as she can remember, she’s read books with people who look like her. So it looks abnormal when she sees a book with someone else on it,” he said. 

Ross spoke positively of books his daughter has read that show African Americans in contexts other than race, such as adventure stories similar to those in the Hardy Boys series.

 “Every time I see a Black character, I don’t want to read about race,” Ross said. 

Two young associates at the store also are celebrating Juneteenth.

One, Cydney O’Bannon, 21, is majoring in political science on the prelaw track at St. Louis University. 

“I think it’s a pretty big thing because I only learned about when I got to high school, and I think it should be talked more about in society,” O’Bannon said. The bookstore helps to get the word out about Juneteenth because it has a lot of books about black history and diversity, he said.

Another association, Mason Lewis, a student at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park, said Juneteenth has been a cultural holiday for him as long as he can remember. 

“Juneteenth is what has replaced July the 4th with, personally,” Lewis said. “I feel like this (store) is a prime place to promote something such as that, promoting freedom, promoting knowledge and just the ability of knowing that this is a holiday for us.”

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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