Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Jeffrey and Pamela Blair wanted their children to feel proud. Then they wanted all African-American children to feel proud.
The couple's business, EyeSeeMe, is a 1,200-square foot storefront in the St. Louis suburb of University City. With shelves of bright-jacketed books and bold posters splashed across the walls it confronts--with defiance and love--the weight of history. The Blairs have curated close to 3,000 titles, ranging from Africa-themed alphabets to the lives of black inventors to hip-hop poetry. Collectively, they chronicle African-American lives, history, and culture.
EyeSeeMe says to its young customers: Do you see all these stories of achievement, of courage, of ingenuity, of fun? This is who you are.
Among the most requested books at story time is Do Not Bring Your Dragon to the Library, about an African-American boy whose unusual pet gets him in trouble. "It's just a story. It's not about anything racial," Jeffrey Blair says. "But because an African-American child sees themselves in the book, validation takes place. That is where the store's name comes from."
"Being in EyeSeeMe does something to you because, for the first time, you are standing in a space where everything looks like you," says Pamela Blair. "For a black family it is like, 'Where has this been all my life?'"
Although the Blairs are more humanists than activists, race has long been an incendiary issue in St. Louis. The Dred Scott case was first tried at the Old Courthouse here. EyeSeeMe is located five miles from Ferguson, where in 2014 a white police officer killed a young African-American man named Michael Brown, escalating the Black Lives Matter movement.
The store will relocate this month to a larger space about a mile away to accommodate more classrooms. Teaching is core to the Blairs' mission. Currently EyeSeeMe runs a popular summer-school program and offers after-school tutoring. Starting in March, it will hire students from Washington University--where three of the Blairs' four children are enrolled--to provide supplemental instruction to home schoolers. Math and reading lessons are conventional, but history lessons include a weighty African-American component.
The Blairs spend half their time visiting schools, where they run book fairs and offer professional-development workshops for educators. They also talk with staff about teaching diverse texts and about sensitivities around race in history classes.
Brandy Fink, North Kirkwood's a library media specialist at North Kirkwood Middle School, in the St. Louis suburbs, buys regularly from EyeSeeMe and enlists the Blairs to help with in-school programs. "EyeSeeMe introduced me to a video about windows and mirrors: that literature should let kids look out and see something beyond themselves and also see their own reflections," Fink says. "They help me make that happen for every kid at this school."
Teaching pride at home
Pamela Blair grew up in Guyana, and moved to Paterson, New Jersey at age 12. Jeffrey Blair was a Brooklyn kid. The two met in 1987 at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey. Jeffrey worked in technology on Wall Street and Pamela was a loan officer until 1993 when their first child, Jeffrey Jr., was born. Three more children followed: twins Naomi and Sarah in 1999 and Ezra in 2000.
It was Ezra, really, who started it all. He was smart. And once school started, he was bored. Pamela had read an article about home schooling and thought she would try it. "Ezra loved it," says Pamela. "He excelled." The Blairs then pulled out both girls, and Pamela instructed all three, as well as children of some friends and neighbors. She created a curriculum that included the Bible and emphasized African-American history. Both parents dug into that subject, building a library and educating themselves about the contributions of black scientists, political leaders, artists, and others.
"A lot of times when teachers speak about African-American history it is pretty much slavery and Abraham Lincoln and civil rights," Jeffrey says. "There is so much more."
When schools fall down
In 2008 Jeffrey took a job with the Social Security Administration helping streamline the disability claims process, which required the family to move to St. Louis. With Naomi, Sarah and Ezra middle-school age, the Blairs decided to give public education another shot. Kirkwood, the predominantly white suburb where they settled, had an excellent school system. From the outset their children pulled down A's. The Blairs attribute some of that achievement to confidence born from the pride they developed sitting around the kitchen table, talking about their heritage.
But what family members saw in the classrooms troubled them. "The curriculum was very Euro-centric," Jeffrey says. "Even if they were covering a black character it was a black character viewed through the eyes of a European." Nothing in the hallways or on classroom walls testified to the achievements of African Americans, and there was no observance of Black History Month.
The Blairs had begun publishing games that challenged players to create timelines of African-American history to understand the connections among significant events. They also created posters celebrating contributions by African Americans and brought them to the school. They arranged for St. Louis University medical students to address science classes so students could see black doctors. They talked to administrators about teaching more books with an African-American perspective. "There was always pushback," Pamela says. "And we were getting tired of it. We didn't want our kids to lose their zeal."
Other parents--and not just African Americans--shared their frustration. Anxious to reach the broadest audience with the best and greatest variety of material, the Blairs began to explore the idea of a bookstore. At first they considered selling exclusively online, their channel for the timeline games. But then the events in Ferguson convinced them they needed to create a space where they could promote discussion as well as sell books.
"With Ferguson it bubbled up to the top," says Jeffrey. "Black people said we have got to do something. And part of that involved taking ownership of the education of their children. And a lot of white people and organizations started to take it seriously. They said I want to understand more."
A book club is born
The Blairs invested their savings and on June 20, 2015 EyeSeeMe opened its doors with just 35 titles. As parents and teachers discovered the store--largely through Facebook--the founders dramatically expanded inventory. Recent big sellers include the Black Panther graphic novels; The Hate U Give, which was adopted into a popular movie; and Michelle Obama's memoir Becoming, which the store could hardly keep on the shelves.
The Blairs delight in introducing readers to authors overlooked by mainstream booksellers. Pamela's personal favorite is Patricia McKissack, whose more than 100 books include Hard Labor, about the first indentured servants in America, and Red-Tail Angels, about the Tuskegee Airmen. EyeSeeMe also features titles of interest to young entrepreneurs, such as Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire: The Lemonade Escapade. That's the book that absorbed Sidney Keys III when he first visited in August 2016 at age 10. His mother, Winnie Caldwell, made a video of him there: reading, rapt. After the video went viral on Facebook, Keys III launched Books N Bros, a club for boys between the ages of 7 and 13 to discuss titles by African-American writers.
Books N Bros, which comprises 20 kids who meet in person and another 35 who participate online, moved out of EyeSeeMe after a few months and now meets at a youth organization in Ferguson. EyeSeeMe still provides most of the club's selections, at a discount. And, Caldwell says, "Pamela is a big help in picking out the books."
Now almost 13, Sidney, who has appeared on programs like Steve Harvey and Young Wonders: A CNN Heroes Special, remains a frequent customer. "He will still find a book and doesn't want to leave," Caldwell says. "I have to drag him out."