South Bend bookstore promotes diversity through literature

In this Thursday, July 19, 2018 photo, Kathy Burnette, owner of the The Brain Lair bookstore poses inside the store in South Bend, Ind. (Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Children’s classics like “Goodnight Moon,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Where the Wild Things Are,” aren’t going to be the books found after walking through the doors of the new Brain Lair bookstore.

Instead, children and young adults will find “Goodbye Brings Hello,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Boy” and “#Not Your Princess” — books featuring diversity that spark imagination and foster empathy — all part of owner Kathy Burnette’s mission.

“It’s hard for people to have empathy for others if they don’t know anything about them,” Burnette said. “The best way to reach kids and families is through liter ature.”

The Brain Lair, located at 714 E Jefferson Blvd., opened July 8.

The store features books that are carefully selected by the Granger business owner, who said she doesn’t just “sell something to sell something.”

“Not only am I looking for a good story, but I am looking for the high-quality inclusive books. I am looking for marginalized voices,” Burnette said. “Voices who are always on the outside. Besides having books with different ethnicities and religions, I just look for books that I want to read to my own child and ones that I feel that we should have in the classroom.”

The attention to detail and promotion of inclusion is one that drew customer Angela Putt to the new bookstore.

“We read all the time and it’s super important for my boys to learn about the world that way and experience different things,” the South Bend mother said. “I like that we have something like this in the area and I think the boys are going to love it.”

The bookstore also has a book club, hosts meet-and-greets with authors and special events like a Harry Potter Party and Costume Contest, celebrating the 20th anniversary of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”

The idea to open a bookstore was one that Burnette, who recently retired as a librarian from the Penn-Harris-Madison School Corp., has had for more than 20 years.

While her daughter was growing up, Burnette noticed it was difficult to find books and characters that her biracial child could relate to. That was a trend she found in the schools, too, after working as a librarian for 16 years.

“I was noticing the types of books that teachers read in their classrooms. It’s always classics or white-centered and I thought, we are missing out on everyone,” Burnette said. “When you read books in school, kids’ perspective is that ‘This is how the world is, this is what it looks like.’ I thought I needed to fix that.”

Only 25 percent of books that were published in 2017 were about minorities with the central character or protagonist being a person of color, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center. Just 15 percent of published books were written by authors who are minorities.

Finding books that feature diversity can be difficult in today’s market, said Darolyn Jones, an English professor at Ball State University.

Jones, who also is an author and editor, said the lack of representation is “a political and complex problem” because of “gatekeeping happening at the publishing level.”

“There are books out there, but where are they?” Jones said. “There’s not a lack of multicultural writers or books. The reality is you can’t get published without an agent and they won’t commit if they don’t think a story that’s different from what we normally see won’t make money.”

Jones developed the Rethinking Children’s and Young Adult Literature initiative in 2014. The project challenges students to find and produce books that “represent the unrepresented” while focusing on social and educational justice issues. Past themes have included the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter movement.

“As a child, if you don’t read about characters like you, then it’s like someone saying, ‘You don’t matter or you don’t count,'” Jones said. “And if you are only reading the same genre, race, gender — you don’t get to see what’s really happening in the world around you and how characters resolve issues. This is all needed to find identity.”

Jones said the bookstore owner needs to “hit the pavement running” and do lots of marketing to continue to attract people to shop local.

But since Burnett has established a niche, marketing literature that promotes people of color and underserved communities, her chances of business success as a small, independent bookstore may be promising, according to the most recent data collected by the American Booksellers Association. From 2009 to 2015, the number of independent bookstores nationally rose 35 percent, from 1,651 to 2,227 stores, while big-box retailers, like Barnes & Noble, struggled.

“I was not sure what the reception would be in this neighborhood, but the first full week has been fantastic and every day has … customers in the store and on our website,” Burnett said. “I have had to reorder several times.”

Burnette also said the store works closely with local schools like Stanley Clark to provide classroom book sets, which will bring in a steady profit. Initial funding to open the store came from donations and funds from crowdfunding campaigning.

Having only been in business for a week, Burnette said she has a lot to do and hopes to expand and start projects with local nonprofits like the Boys and Girls Club to help promote the importance of reading and inclusion.

“I want to bring the literature out of the store and into the community,” she said. “I want people to see themselves in books.”