At last month’s Social Venture Partners Tampa Bay Fast Pitch competition, Lorielle J. Hollaway took home the grand prize of an unrestricted, $15,000 grant. She plans to further her and her team’s education and bring in experienced minds that can help ensure the Cultured Books’ longevity. Photo courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg
BY NICOLE SLAUGHTER GRAHAM, Staff Writer
ST/ PETERSBURG — Before Cultured Books was ever a thought in Lorielle J. Hollaway’s mind, she worked in the local WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) office as a breastfeeding peer counselor. She remembers that the office gave out free books to the WIC recipients, but something wasn’t quite right.
“The books didn’t represent the people that were coming in for WIC services,” she recalled.
And though she had no inclination of starting a bookstore at the time, a small, unformed seed was planted.
Fast forward a couple of years to 2014, Hollaway is studying at Hillsborough Community College. She’s taking an anthropology class, and the instructor encourages the students to look at the world holistically. The instructor, Hollaway said, urged students to get involved in their communities.
At the same time, Hollaway’s eldest daughter, who was four at the time, was gearing up to start kindergarten the following school year. Hollaway remembers that even at the tender age of four, her daughter didn’t like the texture of her hair or the deep, rich brown of her skin.
“She is so beautiful. Her dad is beautiful. I am beautiful. We have locs and dark skin. But she wanted to be more light-skinned like one of her aunties and some of her classmates. And I thought, what is going on? You have beautiful examples. You have your dad, and you have me… what is going on?”
At that moment, Hollaway started to pay attention to the media and stimuli her daughter was consuming outside of her family’s home.
She curated her own Instagram account so that her daughter could see beautiful Black people featured. She made sure the family’s YouTube account featured age-appropriate videos with Black children and Black families, and she started reading books with her daughter that celebrated the beauty of Blackness.
“We focused on reinforcing her beauty, and I remember reading ‘Happy to Be Nappy’ by bell hooks, and that’s one of the books she really loved.”
While in school and nurturing her daughter’s love of Black beauty and joy, an undercurrent of societal pain took hold. Back-to-back shootings of Black men and children brought heartache to the forefront of the community.
Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice.
“It was in the middle of these deaths at the hands of police that I realized that white people really don’t see us as human,” Hollaway recalled.
With this trifecta of events in Hollaway’s life, the somewhat abstract seed planted in the WIC office gained form and vision, and the idea for a bookstore was born.
“Books are the easiest gateway of entry.”
Hollaway wanted the bookstore to serve two distinct purposes: to help Black children feel empowered and to show white people that Black people are human beings.
“All children, and especially Black children,” Hollaway asserted, “need to see themselves in a positive light. They need their full stories told,” noting that for many Black children, their history is taught as though it starts with slavery.
In 2016, she knew what the name of her store would be, and she started taking business classes through Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation and St. Pete Greenhouse.
By Oct. 2017, Hollaway was ready for her launch, and Cultured Books had its first pop-up at the Soul of the Deuces market on 22nd Street South.
“That was my first vending opportunity, first market, my launch — all of it,” Hollaway recalled. “I sold my first book there. It was ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’ by Maya Angelou.”
In 2018, Dr. LaDonna Butler offered her space to sell books at The Well, and Hollaway continued doing pop-ups at events and readings.
It was in 2019, though, that momentum slowed as she turned her focus to her family after finding out she was pregnant with her third daughter. After the birth of her daughter, Hollaway started doing events and readings again, but in the spring of 2020, Cultured Books came to another halt as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the nation.
“We didn’t have an online presence at the time, and book sales really slowed down.”
Still committed to her dream, Hollaway knew that these hiccups, or “speed bumps,” as she calls them, wouldn’t deter her. She decided to start a nonprofit arm for Cultured Books so that she could apply for grants to keep bringing literacy-focused events to the community — a no-cost service that had always been available through Cultured Books but was dependent on book sales before the pandemic.
All the while, she continued doing what she could to make sure children had books in their hands with characters that looked like them. A child can bring in a book report as their currency and walk away with a new title.
She started filming a show inspired by the iconic Reading Rainbow to bring virtual storytime to children. Cultured Books started gaining local and national acclaim and was featured on Oprah Daily in an article about 125 Black-owned bookstores across the country and on Good Morning America about surviving the pandemic.
When it was safe to do so, Cultured Books started hosting movies at the Royal Theater, where families would read a book and watch the film based on that book and then participate in conversation and activities based around the book.
Hollaway feels literacy and reading are at the heart of everything and wants families to be able to experience that interconnectedness.
Now, she is looking toward the future for her beloved bookstore. At last month’s SVP Fast Pitch competition, she took home the grand prize of an unrestricted, $15,000 grant.
Long-term sustainability, she said, is her focus for Cultured Books.
“I am still committed to owning some property on 22nd Street,” she said, noting that she’s currently working on a proposal to send to the city regarding a vacant city-owned parcel. Her dream is a hub for her literacy nonprofit that will also house the for-profit bookstore.
Hollaway wants to make sure it’s done right so that Cultured Books will serve as a community literacy staple for years to come.
“We want to become an anchor on 22nd Street. We want to be a cultural institution here long, long down the line when I’m dead and gone,” she stated. “We want to be one of those anchors that’s in place through revitalization, through gentrification — because it is coming.”
The $15,000 grant will further Hollaway and her team’s education and bring in experienced minds that can help ensure the organization’s longevity. Black stories, she said, need to be told and accessible for the long haul so that Black children always know their power.
“We have powerful stories and contributions to this world, and Black children should feel empowered in who they are and be proud of their ancestors. Their ancestors are kings and queens.”
To reach Nicole Slaughter Graham, email firstname.lastname@example.org