Eyeseeme African American Children’s Bookstore in University City became an internet sensation by association thanks to a visit to the store by Sidney Keys III and his mother, Winnie Caldwell. About a year and a half ago, she posted a video of him reading a book in the store that went viral. He was inspired by his visit to start Books N Bros book club, which caught the attention of CNN (which recognized him as a “Young Wonder” as part of the 11th annual CNN Heroes), Steve Harvey, Oprah Winfrey and many others.
They were thrilled and excited for young Sidney. But the frenzy about it let Eyeseeme owners Pamela and Jeffrey Blair know that the work they do is important, necessary – and that there is so much more that needs to be done.
“Why would a black boy reading a book go viral?” Jeffrey asked. “Why would a black boy starting a book club be such a novel thing? It’s exciting, but it’s also so rare. We want to change that. We want to duplicate that to the point where it’s a common thing.”
As Eyeseemee celebrates its three-year anniversary, the Blairs are up for the challenge. They officially opened their doors on Juneteenth in 2015 and celebrated with special programming on Saturday, June 23 of this year.
The sense of pride was contagious as the couple walked through the small space in a retail strip and displayed their inventory. They primarily focus on children’s books, but due to demand, high-school and adult books are extended into the space reserved for programming that includes storytelling, tutoring, history and writing classes. They also have inventory available online at www.eyeseeme.com. In three years they have already outgrown their space and are looking to relocate.
The bookstore is still a new business, but the motivation for the store goes back nearly two decades.
“We like to say it was inspiration out of desperation,” said Jeffrey. “We were looking for baby books, and it was very hard to find books with black characters in them. We felt that it was very important that the information they consumed reflected them as well. Otherwise, there might be some negative consequences about their self-worth and self-value.”
As the couple’s four children entered school, it was more of the same. Jeffrey said that they learned about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and slavery – and that was it as far as black history was concerned.
“There are so many more dimensions to us as a people than just slavery and the Civil Rights Movement,” Jeffrey said. “My wife and I went to great lengths to show them our contributions to civilization. This was not about a business, it was about filling a gap that our children needed so that they could understand who they are and where they are from.”
That self-awareness led their children to excel. They were doing so well in school that teachers and other parents began to take notice. They were constantly asked if their children were getting extra tutoring.
“All education really starts with self,” Jeffrey said. “As long we can invest in children so that they can see something that they can become excited about, then they will become self-motivated about learning.”
Their oldest son starts medical school in Idaho in the fall. The other three ( a set of twins and a younger sibling who skipped a grade) are rising sophomores at Washington University with full academic scholarships.
“A big part of their academic success is based on the work we put in to help them understand who they are,” Jeffrey said. “It was a catalyst to help them stay focused and excited about learning.”
It also became the foundation for their business.
Building a black bookstore
As the Blair children continued to flourish, their parents began thinking of ways to share the tools they used for their success on a larger scale because of the constant questions and solicitation for advice from other parents and teachers.
“We would talk to parents, they would blame the schools,” Jeffrey said. “We would talk to teachers, they would blame the parents. So, there was this whole cycle. My wife and I thought, ‘Is there something that we can share with the community and be a resource to parents, grandparents, schools and teachers to assist on that fundamental level?”
The couple, who transplanted to St. Louis from their native New Jersey 10 years ago, began sharing what they taught their children. They created games and flash cards and passed them along to other parents, family and friends. The feedback was phenomenal. The Blairs wanted to do more. As they saw one son off to college and prepared to send three more, they took a leap with Eyeseeme.
“This did not start out as a business, this started out as what we felt was a need for the black community,” Jeffrey said. “Research tells us that the number one predictor of academic success is the number of books in the home. We knew this was valuable to us raising our children, and we felt it would be valuable to the black community and society in general. Literacy is the basic building block to education. If we don’t get excitement going around that, then we will have problems going downstream.”
The response has been overwhelming.
“To see children delight in this space is something that you don’t know you are missing until you get here,” Pamela said. “We had two children come in yesterday. They were so excited. They didn’t know which books to pick up first. Just to know that there’s a child that can see themselves in every book they put their hands on – for me that’s why I wake up every morning.”
It goes beyond the children. Jeffrey recalled an incident last month where a black man, whom Jeffrey assumed to be in his mid-30s, came into the store early for a meeting the two had scheduled. Jeffrey was wrapping up another meeting and invited the man to browse the store.
“As he sat down, he started to cry,” Jeffrey said. “He said, almost talking to himself, ‘Every place I’ve ever been, I’ve always felt like a minority. But here, it’s all about me.’ He said, ‘I wonder if my life would have been different if I had this when I was a child.”
Jeffrey said that type of reaction is typical for people who enter the space for the first time.
“We get that all the time,” Jeffrey said. “It’s like, ‘Wow, what we are doing has purpose and value.’ We are really happy about that.”
They have reading camp, writing camp, public speaking camp and a black history camp as part of their summer programming. They also have book signings for local and national authors. They’ve also started the Eyeseeme Foundation to raise funds so that children from families who may not be able to afford to buy the books can have access to them.
Both Blairs said that they knew Eyeseeme would make a difference. However, they had no idea of the huge impact their store and vision behind it would have on the community at large.
They attend book fairs and resources fairs. They also participate in professional development programs with area school districts to help promote diversity in literacy and education.
“The thing that was most surprising was how much the white community was our customer and sees the value in what we are doing,” Jeffrey said. Jeffrey said that the core base of professional development efforts in schools is white women educators. “They’ve expressed the need not just learn to teach black kids in their classrooms, but expose white kids to diverse literature,” Jeffrey said.
But their work is for and about uplifting black youth by having literature and programs to encourage that same spark that was ignited in Sidney Keys III when he became glued to a copy of “Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire.”
“To have a child see themselves in a book – and to know that princesses have curly hair and dark skin too – that is so satisfying for me that I can live my entire life doing this,” Pamela said.
Kenya Vaughn is a reporter for The St. Louis American, where this story was originally published.