Lynn Washington was always interested in literature and education, but it wasn’t until she became a Director at the free Library of Philadelphia, creating graphics and exhibits and promoting literacy to children, that she began to think about starting a small business of her own.
She finally began selling books at flea markets for cheaper prices than they could be purchased in major bookstores. This led to her opening Books and Stuff, which sold mostly Afrocentric books, in Germantown in 2015 in the Maplewood Mall. “Illiteracy traps people in a cycle of poverty,” said Washington. “It limits your life choices. It's difficult to achieve social mobility, to move up in your life … I always felt it was necessary and important that Black children saw their faces in their reading material.”
However, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, that idea went virtual, launching a new kind of business model that continues to be successful. After closing her storefront, Washington focused on books, puzzles and surprise baskets that could be delivered virtually. She created “Surprise Packages” for customers who want to order them as a birthday or holiday gift. For $15, $25 or $30, Washington will create a personalized gift package for customers, whether child, teen or adult. Gift packages include at least one book and items from the store’s eclectic collection.
“These surprise boxes start with telling me a bit about the person who is getting the box,” said Washington. “I have different price ranges. The steps and instructions are on my website.”
Because she purchases from smaller companies and buys overstock inventory, she is often able to price her books at cheaper prices than major bookstores.
Her diverse collection of books is a way of connecting with different children of multiple backgrounds and showing them successful people from different races and ethnicities. For example, Washington recently promoted “She Was the First,” a biography of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress (1968). She also recently added “The Woman Who Caught the Baby” by Eloise Greenfield, about African American midwives. Another favorite is “Becoming Kareem: Growing Up on and Off the Court,” about the upbringing and success of NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
She also connects books to current events. The book she is promoting now, “Freedom Soup,” is about Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere which recently suffered a Presidential assassination and a catastrophic earthquake. “I will donate $10 dollars from the sale of each book to the CARE Humanitarian Search Fund,” she said.
In addition to running her online bookstore, Washington has been showcasing her love of books at local fairs and shows such as the Philadelphia Flower Show. “We had different activities, some kites and flying mobiles, other things made in Indonesia,” said Washington.
In addition, she donates books to schools in the surrounding area. “I also have my relationships with schools, such as the Waldorf School of Philadelphia, so I'm still getting the books into the hands of customers.”
Although Washington doesn’t have any plans to open another brick-and-mortar location, she is focusing her time on adding more books to her online collection, especially since the holidays are just around the corner. “My focus for the future is not only online sales but also doing festivals and connecting with diverse groups, schools and organizations that need lots of books.”
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