Customers browsing at Black Garnet Books

Black Garnet Books Builds Inclusion into Its St. Paul Bookstore

Ever since Dionne Sims decided in the summer of 2020 to create Minnesota’s only Black-owned bookstore, she has spent her days considering what an inclusive, accessible and welcoming business should be. Nearly three years later, here’s what that looks like. 

When customers with disabilities came in to Sims’s Black Garnet Books to tell her that her bookstore was the first they had visited where they could move around without assistance, she thought she would feel a sense of relief. 

Dionne Sims, owner of Black Garnet Books at 1319 W. University Ave. in St. Paul

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and a racial reckoning in the Twin Cities and the nation, Sims made it her mission to create Minnesota’s only Black-owned bookstore. She spent the following years imagining and slowly piecing together how a space can be defined by its inclusivity and accessibility.

The first thing that came to mind was, of course, the content of the books she would sell. From day one, she decided that the store would stock literature by racially diverse authors and illustrators. As Sims shifted operations from a pop-up location out of Merci Tattoo in Minneapolis to finding Black Garnet a permanent home in St. Paul, there was another key aspect of the store she didn’t plan to waver on, no matter how long it would take to actualize: accessibility and inclusion for everyone who came into the store to purchase a book or peruse, not just able-bodied folks. 

But when she heard from her customers that their experience in her store was the first in which they felt comfortable moving through the store by themselves as a disabled person, that expectation of relief was met by a reality of anger and frustration. 

Space to relax and space to move around, for customers of all abilities, is a priority at Black Garnet.

“It should not be special that people are able to move around in our space. It should not be something that people feel the need to thank you for,” Sims said. 

To an able-bodied person, it may seem insignificant that a business entrance doesn’t have a button to automatically open that door or a register counter that is lower in height or ample space in between shelves to move through. But for people who use mobility devices, such details make or break their willingness to visit such businesses, their comfort level during the visit and their feeling of inclusion at-large.

Need, the Mother of Invention

Sims was born and raised in Minnesota and spent the early years of her life in Northeast Minneapolis before moving to the suburbs in third grade. When she recalls the time she spent at libraries and bookstores as a young kid in Minnesota, she cannot remember an instance when she stepped into a bookshop or walked up to the librarian’s desk and saw a Black person behind the counter. 

“If I wanted that experience of going into a bookstore or library and seeing a Black person I had to leave the state and go to a bookstore down south or in New York,” she said. 

As a voracious young reader, Sims often found that the selection of books at these libraries and bookstores weren’t curated for diverse audiences, and when there were stories written by or for Black readers, they depicted the Black experience in ways Sims didn’t relate to. “A lot of the books that were in libraries that had Black characters were these specifically like urban genre books that depicted very poor Black kids from the hood dealing with gang violence or dealing with some type of familial or communal violence, which for me wasn’t relatable,” Sims explained. She loved reading fantasy books as a kid, but had trouble finding those sorts of books written by Black people for young adults, which also contributed to her feeling excluded from books in general.

“The store is everything that I didn’t have growing up. It’s Black people and people of color selling books, it’s looking at different genres and seeing Black authors within those genres,” she said. There’s James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” and bel hooks’s “All About Love” on Black Garnet’s shelves. There’s fantasy and contemporary fiction and history and sci-fi and poetry and cookbooks. All written or illustrated by people of color, speaking to a wide array of experiences.

Searching for a Storefront

Finding a store that matched Sims’s long list of accessibility requirements was a difficult, year-long feat. The goal was not just to comply with ADA accommodations but to surpass them. 

So, Sims waited. She waited to find a space that could accommodate a wheelchair accessible bathroom (you’d be surprised how many retail locations simply do not have bathrooms, she told me), be close to public transit (Black Garnet is steps away from the Green Line), have street parking nearby, a parking lot in the back and no doorstep to the entrance, “because even one stair makes the space inaccessible.” 

With accessibility to the Green Line light rail and wide-open spaces inside, Black Garnet Books’s location in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood is exactly what owner Dionne Sims had in mind.

Once she found her ideal location in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, Sims considered the accessibility infrastructure of the store’s layout. The cash wrap would be lower in height to accommodate seated employees and customers “who aren’t, like, 6-feet tall.” The book shelves would be spaced out and most of the books (with a few exceptions) would be reachable for people with average or below average height. The books on the top shelves would be faced out so customers could easily see the titles. There would be a changing station and rail in the bathroom and a push button at the entrance for people who use wheelchairs, parents with strollers and those who lack the upper body strength to open a heavy door. Creating a fully accessible space is an ongoing process, she notes, but the store is taking intentional steps to get there. 

Another overlooked accessibility piece? Requesting that customers mask when they enter the store to prevent the spread of cold, flu or Covid-19.

“We just try and make sure when people come into the store that at every interaction they feel like they belong in the store and that they are comfortable — and I think that’s an aspect of accessibility, too,” Sims said. 

Barriers to Access

Bookstores may be cozy, homey spaces for community members, but they can also be exclusive by design. That baked in coziness—the small space, high shelves brimming with novels, the tight, cramped corners—creates barriers for someone who uses a mobility device.

“Just by turning my wheelchair ever so slightly I would probably hit a bookshelf behind me if we were in a bookstore,” Minnesota Council on Disability Chair Nikki Villavicencio said. The aisles of bookstores are normally “far too close together” for someone in a wheelchair to move around in and the shelves are too high for someone who is not of average height to see the top-shelf titles, she explained. 

For a new building to be constructed it has to follow the Minnesota Building Code, which requires ADA accommodations like having the proper door width, a wheelchair accessible bathroom stall, space to comfortably move between furniture and more. By meeting all these guidelines businesses are following civil rights laws.

So let’s say that a business breaks one of these codes. These civil rights violations aren’t automatically illegal in the same way running a red light would be. It is a violation of a person’s civil rights to have a building that is ADA-noncompliant. But there is no proactive enforcement of disability rights in the US, said ADA Director for the Minnesota Council on Disability, David Fenley. “There’s nobody that comes in and says: You’re not meeting the ADA. Fix it or we’re shutting you down,” he explained. “Somebody with a disability has to not be able to get in and then take the time out of their day to complain or sue.”

“Folks who use wheelchairs face barriers and face discrimination all day every day,” Fenley said. “But, you know, who wants to be that pariah in their community who sues everybody?”

Accessibility is evident in the choice of literature for all ages, the height of the check-out counter and the space allowed between tables and book displays.

People with disabilities are left to move through a world that is not designed to properly accommodate or include them. So they have to plan a little bit more to visit a business, and just because a place claims to be wheelchair accessible doesn’t necessarily mean that it is when someone using a wheelchair visits. 

“It is a requirement to have bathrooms in public places, but the scope of what that means can be a wide variety of actual accessibility,” Villavicencio said. A business can technically accommodate a person in a wheelchair moving around, but there’s no guarantee that when that person arrives they can actually do so. “It can bring out a lot of anxiety, because you don’t know what you’re gonna face when you get there,” she said. 

Beyond Compliance

Many of these design choices made by able-bodied business owners aren’t intentional. As ADA director, Fenley takes calls from people who couldn’t get into a business and then calls that business up and notifies them of steps they can take to become more accessible. 

A majority of those business owners, he says, are gracious and willing to make their business more accessible — they simply didn’t know. Still, ignorance can be exclusionary. So when a business like Sims’s Black Garnet goes, as Fenley describes, “above and beyond” to accommodate all customers, it makes a difference. 

The space at Black Garnet is also welcoming aesthetically.

One example of this “above and beyond” commitment is the automatic door opener for people in wheelchairs. This device, which, according to Sims, costs a couple thousands of dollars to install, isn’t a requirement in all stores. Black Garnet hopes to invest in one for the back entrance as well, but is waiting to do so because of the big expense.  

Looking at photos of the space, Fenley observed that there is more than enough space to move around, and that intentional accessibility and inclusivity within the store’s design is apparent. “[Sims] is thinking about how people move or move differently in the world, in the design of the store, rather than just doing the bare minimum, which is the law, which a lot of businesses don’t even do,” he said. 

The more businesses that are focusing on accessibility in their store front, Trista Marie McGovern says, the better. McGovern is a disability advocate and friend of Sims who has shared many conversations with her on disability and through those conversations, Sims said, has helped inform the design of the store. 

So far, those many pillars of accessibility within the store have paid off. The space has transformed from a bookstore to a welcoming community gathering space. People have asked Sims if they can host yoga for Black people, silent auctions, and even be the hosting site for a documentary filming in the store. (Neither Black Garnet Books nor Sims is the subject of this documentary, but because of the store’s significance in the state it was the ideal backdrop for filming an interview, she said.)

Black Garnet centers the experiences of Black, Indigenous and people of color and queer people, but the store welcomes and happily serves anyone who aligns with its mission as well.

“For the space to be here without a lot of people having said it out loud — that that’s the kind of space that they were looking for — I’m just learning that people really want more spaces like this,” she said. St. Paul has a substantial number of Black-owned businesses, especially in the Midway neighborhood, Sims explained. “People just want more . . . they want more diverse faces where they can feel safe and where they can go and enjoy themselves.”

Photos by writer and photographer Wolfie Browender, who writes the blog Saint Paul by Bike — Every Block of Every Street.