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At St. Pete’s Cultured Books, black children’s stories are about more than struggle

Lorielle Hollaway's pop-up bookstore stocks its shelves with children's reads that positively represent the black community.

Lorielle Hollaway’s smile broadened as she flipped through the picture book in her hands. This slice-of-life story, bound in a worn cover, was one of her childhood favorites.

“They seemed like such a happy family,” she said.

Children’s books about happy families come a dime a dozen. But a book about a happy black family –– to Hollaway, that felt special.

Cultured Books started in 2017 with a booth at the Soul on the Deuces Street Festival on 22nd Street S., but Hollaway has since set up shop on Sunday afternoons in the Well, a counseling and wellness clinic down the road. While the store may not have a permanent location, its mission — to promote children’s books that portray black people in a positive light — has never wavered.

“Books about black people don’t have to be about slavery or the civil rights movement,” Hollaway said. “I want to show that we have more to our story than struggle.”

"What's Special About Me, Mama?" by Kristina Evans, featured on the shelves of Cultured Books. [REBECCA TORRENCE | Times]

In 2017, with a vision for the bookstore in mind, Hollaway enrolled in a course on successful entrepreneurship hosted by the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation.

Upon course completion, she received a $2,500 grant to start her business.

“I was so nervous,” she admitted. “But I realized that this was a need and a want in the community.”

Despite the store’s focus on multicultural narratives, Hollaway says about half of her customers are white.

“The bookstore is a resource for parents to show their kids different cultures,” she said. “It can help broaden white kids’ understanding of who else is in their world.”

As Hollaway shuffled through new orders, her 18-month-old daughter, Joyce, plopped down on the floor with a miniature mason jar full of animal crackers. Ava, 8, and Nadia, 10, lounged on the couch beside her.

Hollaway says she’s doing this for her kids, too.

“I’m very conscious of the content I give them,” she said. “Even when they watch YouTube videos, I tell them to find someone black. I don’t want them to feel like they have to fit the American beauty standard of white blondes, because that standard isn’t them.”

Lorielle Hollaway and client Ann Dieterle of the League of Women Voters look through one of her orders. [REBECCA TORRENCE | Times]

Beyond her store, Hollaway has launched several other programs to engage the St. Petersburg community with diverse children’s books.

Most recently, she spearheaded the Book Report Project, which allows children in low-income households to purchase books with a book report.

Hollaway hopes the Book Report Project will keep kids reading in the face of financial strains caused by COVID-19.

“Coming out of this, I still want children to have access to great books,” she said.

Parents wary of shopping in-store can also purchase books online at https://www.culturedbooks.com/.

Next on Hollaway’s agenda is to set up a brick-and-mortar store.

“It’ll be the reverse of a Barnes & Noble,” she said. “You won’t have to go to a section for multicultural books. They’ll be at the forefront.”

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