Editor’s note: This is the second installment of an occasional series we’re calling “East Side Stories.” We examine issues that affect the residents of the East Side, told through the lens of people working to address the problem. Companion stories will air on Channel 2. Today, we focus on literacy and a Jefferson Avenue bookstore serving the community.
In a small storefront on Jefferson Avenue, Sharon and Kenneth Holley have turned their love of books into a neighborhood literary center.
Zawadi Books is the only general interest bookstore on the city’s East Side. There you’ll find find both rare and highly sought-after books, just about all focused on Black culture or amplifying Black authors.
The store carries books by local authors, including one on the May 14 racist attack at Tops supermarket, written by the son of one of the victims.
And depending on the day, you might even run into a local author doing a reading.
“Here in Buffalo, about every month somebody brings us a self-published book that they have written,” said Kenneth Holley, co-owner of Zawadi Books.
Zawadi has evolved into something more than a bookstore. It’s an essential part of a community of avid readers and emerging authors on the East Side.
“The community appreciates the fact that we are here,” said Sharon Holley, Kenneth’s wife and co-owner of the bookstore.
“The kinds of books that we’re selling we want to sell to people who live in the neighborhood, so it would have something of a belonging. Zawadi belongs to us, they sell the kind of books I’m looking for,” she said.
Zawadi Books operates in an area of the city where finding a book can sometimes be as hard as finding fresh produce.
The only other East Side bookstores are religious: Darul Hikmah, an Islamic bookstore that opened on Sycamore Street nearly a decade ago, and Alive Christian Center and Bookstore on Fillmore Avenue.
A nearby book desert
While the May 14 supermarket massacre thrust the East Side into the spotlight as a food desert, part of the community is also a book desert, though not often recognized as such until recently.
The scarcity of libraries and bookstores, literacy experts say, reflects a pattern of disinvestment in these neighborhoods, home to many children who lag academically. Children living in book deserts have noticeably lower literacy rates, experts say.
As Investigative Post previously reported, a majority of pupils read at grade level at only four of the city’s 43 elementary schools.
There are dramatic differences in reading skills when race is taken into account. Nearly 42 percent of white pupils in grades three through eight score at proficient levels. That drops to 16.5 percent for Black and 15.4 percent for Hispanic pupils.
Broadway-Fillmore is considered a book desert because its closest branch library is some three miles away. Funding cuts in 2005 promoted the Buffalo And Erie County library system to close 15 branches, including five east of Main Street.
“When economic segregation occurs, which is also coupled, of course, with racial segregation, you will often find a very limited access to books,” said education researcher Susan Neuman.
The Zawadi Bookstore is three miles from Broadway-Fillmore, but just a block from the Frank E. Merriweather Library, which opened in 2006 in part to compensate for the loss of the five nearby branch libraries.
“You have the Merriweather Library down the block and you’ve got the bookstore here, but that’s just one part of the East Side. On all the other parts of the East Side, there’s nothing, so there’s definitely a lack or shortage of positive books in the Black community,” Kenneth said.
The only other remaining public libraries on the East Side are the Leroy R. Coles Jr. branch on Delavan Avenue and the East Clinton branch on Clinton Avenue between Bailey and Ogden.
Over the past five decades, Zawadi Books has sought to fill a vacuum, Sharon said.
“I feel, in our business, we are promoting literacy.”
She was a librarian at the North Jefferson Branch, one of the five East Side branch libraries shuttered in 2005. She believes the damage caused by closures on the East Side persists.
“It still does cause some hardship when you talk about young kids who cannot come unaccompanied or elders who would have trouble walking any distance to get there,” she said.
The bookstore evolves
The Holleys founded Harambe Books and Crafts in 1976, operating it out of their Wakefield Avenue home. It sold books, craft items, games, toys and magazines related to Afrocentric culture.
“At the time, there was really nobody selling certain books on African-American history,” Kenneth said. “What we wanted to do was show the positive side of African-American culture.”
The store was a passion project for the two, as they both worked full time at other jobs.
Kenneth was a founding member and the longtime director of Buffalo Lutheran Employment Services — a position he would hold for over two decades. Sharon worked as a librarian in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system, a career that spanned 34 years. The two have three daughters who worked on and off in the bookstore over the years.
The Holleys sold their business in the late 1990s, but quickly bought it back. They said it was important to keep the store open for its intended purpose — to meet the needs of their community.
The couple renamed their store Zawadi Books in 2010. Zawadi means “gift” in Swahili. The store changed locations several times before settling in on Jefferson Avenue six years ago.
Getting books into the hands of children has been a crucial mission of the store. In addition to having a children’s section, the Holleys do outreach to connect with young readers.
Recently, for example, they set up a booth at the Juneteenth festival. Sharon recounted how excited a little boy was to see books at the festival before being told by his mother, “It’s summertime. We don’t read in the summer.”
“I almost had to look away to keep from saying anything, but I’m thinking, ‘You need to read all the time,’ ” Sharon said. “Reading is not just a seasonal activity. You should do that 365.”
Said Kenneth: “As parents, in the very early years, I think it’s very important that you introduce children to books and to reading. That way, it automatically brings in your libraries and your bookstores.”
He recalled that his own love of literature is rooted in his childhood, often seeing his father and other men around him reading and discussing literature.
“These men all came from plants and things like that, but one thing they all enjoyed doing was reading books,” Kenneth said. “They read books, they read novels and things like that. Books were like an enjoyment for them, like watching TV is for a lot of people now.”
Variety of titles
The store at 1382 Jefferson Ave. is open three days a week. It also sells books online at zawadibooksbflo.com.
The Holleys strive to keep their collections relevant. They said literature keeps communities educated about the world, from a historical perspective to a modern one.
At the height of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, customers from across the nation placed orders with Zawadi Books on literature about race relations. How to be an Antiracist, a bestseller by Ibram X. Kendi, which was popular during the time, is still stocked on the store’s shelves today.
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Following the Tops massacre, the Holleys assisted Zeneta Everhart and her son Zaire Goodman, a survivor of the shooting, in compiling books to educate readers on racism and cultural acceptance.
The store’s offerings are more than recollections of trauma within the African-American community, however. There are cookbooks, religious texts, an array of fiction and nonfiction books, and a small section devoted to children’s books.
“It’s a great deal of positive images in African-American children’s books right now. It’s a good time to buy them.” Kenneth said.
As was the mission when it opened, the store is about providing literature that shows the spectrum of Black American life, including the positive aspects.
“What you’ve got right now in African-American authors and also illustrators is a lot of them trying to put out those big, powerful pictures,” Kenneth said.