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Detroit’s Source Booksellers: Our Fall 2023 Bookselling Partner
Janet Webster Jones, founder, Source Booksellers
The story of Source Booksellers in Detroit is a story of how communities call out for books, and book people respond to the call, in the spirit of the community. Call and response.
Janet Webster Jones had been a teacher and counselor and school administrator in Detroit for decades when she took a trip to Egypt in the late 1980s. Their guide was knowledgeable about Egyptian history and historiography and introduced Janet to a whole area of study that she shared with her friends when she returned. Her listeners pointed out that she kept bringing up books: “I had books that substantiated a lot of the information and materials I was talking about,” she later explained. A church Christmas bazaar was coming up and her friends said, “Janet why don’t you just get these books and we’ll buy ’em because you are always talking about these books.” Here were readers, lacking only the books and the advocate for them, to create a book community.
Janet had grown up in a family that cherished reading and intellectual pursuit. “We didn’t engage in a lot of TV, which we hardly had when I was growing up,” she has explained. “My mother was a librarian for the Detroit Public Library, so we were always engaged to some degree with books and going to school.” Her daughter Alyson Jones, who now runs Source Booksellers with her mother and is also a teacher, notes that she too spent a lot of time in the public library as a child.
Janet’s mother was among the first graduating classes from Spelman College in Atlanta in the 1920s after the school’s conversion from a seminary to a college for girls: her own parents had been farmers in Georgia, without education. Janet’s mother heard about Spelman from a country preacher and put herself through school working in the office. (Janet’s mother read to her father, who couldn’t read himself.) Janet’s parents followed a sister to Detroit in the thirties looking for work, and Janet describes her mother’s sense of arrival and discovered purpose when she became a librarian there. Janet only realized her family, who lived comfortably among thousands of other Black Detroiters in segregated communities until they moved into the tentative, contested mixed neighborhoods just beginning in late 1950s, were a part of a historic movement—the Great Migration—when she read Isabelle Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns in 2010.
Janet followed her mother to Spelman and they were both active in the women’s club movement: Janet’s mother was among those who founded the Spelman Club in Detroit, which helped to spawn the influential network of women’s clubs and sororities that have done so much to support education for Black people (see for example the mobile library initiative, described in our post on bookmobiles, that the sorority Delta Sigma Theta created in the thirties to bring books to neighborhoods barring access to libraries by Black readers; current efforts to exclude books about Black history and experience from libraries recall this ignoble and not-so-distant history). When Janet, eventually trailed by her daughter Alyson and her sister, followed up on the enthusiasm of that first bazaar and continued selling a her own selection of books “across the table” at local events she was picking up a thread that went way back in her family. After more than ten years of what Janet notes with a twinkle we would today call “pop-up bookselling,” a friend offered Janet her first physical space, in collaboration with three other women-owned businesses, in the Spiral Collective on Cass Street in midtown Detroit, and Janet had a bookstore. (You can see her perched in her little niche in the Spiral Collective in this interview.) She retained her original focus on nonfiction (her Spelman degree was in social science). Her small but carefully tended stock, which she speaks of with learned authority, has held since the early days to four themes: history and culture, health and well-being, metaphysics and spirituality, books by and about women. (Janet likes to talk about cultivating also a “wild side,” her store’s small but lively collection of science fiction, mystery, prize-winning authors, and poetry, which she calls “a kind of bridge.” She tells a story of a customer’s grandmother who liked to keep a margin of wild growth at the edges of her tidy garden.)
Janet’s own life spans a period of Detroit’s history in which the city seemed to embody to an intense degree the ups and downs of American experience. The settling of the automobile industry in Detroit created a powerful magnet for jobs during the Great Migration, and Black employment in Detroit saw a 103 percent postwar increase; and yet Detroit had been a Klan stronghold and friction over jobs sparked race riots in 1943 that echoed across the country. The city became a Black cultural hub embodied in the “Motown” style, but the federally subsidized highway systems destroyed Detroit’s historic Black neighborhoods in the 1950s. Brown v. the Board of Education in 1954 kicked off a period of intense white flight to the suburbs resulting in a downtown population that went from 10 to 75 percent Black between 1940 and 1980. Martin Luther King, Jr., joined what was at the time the largest civil rights march in history, the Walk to Freedom, in Detroit in 1963. Detroit saw the most damaging of the “long, hot summer” riots of 1967. A 1970 Supreme Court decision prohibited measures to address the extreme segregation of its public schools. Buffeted by an eroding tax base, the gas crisis of the seventies, and the loss of automotive jobs overseas, Detroit declared bankruptcy in 2013 (emergency managers tore down Janet’s library branch because it was “not financially stable”) and starting in 2014 neighboring Flint suffered a catastrophic water crisis.
Just as bankruptcy loomed, a group pursuing renovation of the city’s Midtown district offered Janet her own space for Source across the street from the Spiral Collective. The neighborhood has since become a thriving center of arts and culture (a pattern that seems to follow the arrival of bookstores, see our story on Malaprops in Asheville, North Carolina). “Everyone wanted to help,” Janet says “with wagons and buckets” to move the store across the street to its present location. With characteristic wryness and self deprecation she said she “gets the itch” to try something different about every seven years; she often recalls that she had no intention of becoming a businessperson and her destination bookstore is basically a retirement project that kept getting bigger. “Opportunity and courage took us into the book industry,” she says.
Janet’s bookselling remains attuned to its surroundings: “we feel very much a part of this neighborhood, we are in business to serve the literary wishes, desires, and needs of the community that comes to our door.” Source has launched books like The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits, by Tiya Miles (who won the National Book Award more recently for All That She Carried). Janet has advocated for books on the importance of water as a resource, as well as Black Bottom Saints, a novel about the destruction of Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood by highway builders and David Maraniss’s Once in a Great City, which describes the thriving Detroit of 1962-63, a time, in Janet’s words, “reminiscent of the time we’re in now, a resurgence.” She describes her now-thriving milieu as “the third coast,” the lakeside one.
Indeed the story Janet tells of her Detroit experience is one of hope, community, and discovery. The injustices she has known firsthand only nourish her love of learning and shared insight. When the protests against the murder of George Floyd in 2020 in neighboring Minnesota spawned widespread reading in books about race, along with a renewed appreciation for supporting the country’s beleaguered Black-owned bookstores, Source was well prepared because of their deep stock in nonfiction—books that “offer information,” as she had back in 1989, providing “substantiation” for a change in perspective. She recalls that readers ordering the books on her shelves were saying at the time, “why didn’t I know this, why didn’t I learn this in school?,” and that they “wanted their children to be better informed than they were perhaps about the issues of race, class, gender, diversity, the whole ball of wax that we are talking about right now.” (One rues the extent to which this spirit seems in many quarters to have subsided.) “Books and learning and teaching and thinking and knowing is all part of what I do,” she says. She says that a bookstore, in promoting literacy, is not just teaching people to be “able to interpret, read, or write a simple sentence. It is also important to be literate in the ways of the world, television, internet, using the computer, knowing what’s going on in all parts of the world. I think that when people gather together their language needs increase, the need to have more words available to them, more opportunities to talk.” She is a supporter of bringing academic writing before nonspecialist readers, arguing that “we have done a disservice to people thinking that they can’t understand ideas that are complicated.”
Partly because of this community focus, Source had remained an in-person-only bookstore until the pandemic forced a change: “we have always wanted a relational business, not just a transactional one,” Janet says. But in part with the help of tech-savvy Alyson, Source pivoted quickly to online shopping when in-person business shut down and found it not only a lifeline in a crisis but a source of renewed vitality. Now the store reaches readers around the country and around the world with books and events; particularly during the protests of 2020 they were able to serve businesses, nonprofits, and educational groups who supported their mission with bulk orders; they expanded into more space to provide fulfilment while giving their returning in-person customers “more freedom of movement” and a “relaxed atmosphere.” During the pandemic, though, Janet, person-to-person bookseller that she is, found particular sustenance on the phone, which remained her “connection to the world,” describing at the time how “sometimes people on the phone are frightened and afraid and so this gives me a chance to calm them down and say, let me see what this book will do for you.” “If I needed to have a jolt,” she says, “and get going on a new path [the pandemic] really did it for me … I would not have guessed that we would be where we are today.” She is always one to see the positive.
The word “service” comes up a lot when Janet talks about her work. When an interviewer asked her for some words of encouragement for women who want to “feel more purposeful” about their life choices Janet replied, “I think we need to just not depend on the feeling. We need to depend on the interest, motivation to achieve not only their own improvement but also to offer service to the community.” I think she was referring to the interest that is out there, the unmet interest in learning more, in being more, that throughout her career she has reached generously to fill. (“If people have a business, that business will teach you to be meaningful,” she has said.) In pairing wellness and spirituality with nonfiction, and in thinking about making her store a place that is peaceful and welcoming, she sees her store’s offer of knowledge and information as coming enveloped in care.
One notes how important women have been in the creation and sustenance of America’s great Black-owned bookstores. Printer Julian Richardson expanded his business to include bookselling in 1960 because his wife and partner Raye (both Tuskegee Institute, same era as Janet’s mother went to Spelman) “had an unquenchable thirst for books about black people in the United States and around the world. She'd loan them to friends after finishing and often wouldn't get them back.” Julian “got so tired of buying her books that he decided to start selling them at his Fillmore District print shop in order to be able to get some for her wholesale,” creating San Francisco’s Marcus Books, the oldest African-American bookstore in the country, now run by their daughter Blanche. Una Milzac (Spelman, 1958) opened Liberation Bookstore in 1967 and operated the Harlem landmark until her death in 2012. Hakim’s Bookstore in Philadelphia, the oldest African American-owned bookstore on the east coast, is operated by Yvonne Blake, daughter of its founder Dawud Hakim. Many of the new African-American bookstores to have sprung up in the recent boom in independent bookselling, such as Loyalty in Washington, DC, and The LitBar in the Bronx (Book Post story here), and Rofhiwa in Durham, were founded by women. It is no coincidence that supporting the work of women is integral to the mission of a woman who began her work of education and enlightenment by sharing books with her friends. Building connection, passing on knowledge, supporting growth and change with love and wisdom, these are things that happen one-on-one, in the places people are, and these women have joined in this labor for generations. To me, Janet’s own work is a kind of enveloping anthology, a work of intellect and cultural advancement on a par with the writers whose books she continues to hand across the table.
Footnote: For more on Black booksellers in Michigan read our portrait of Ypsilante’s Black Stone Bookstore and Cultural Center from April 2020. We reached out to Black Stone (neighboring Source was not yet online!) in the weeks before George Floyd’s murder, in order to comment on the disproportionate impacts of the covid epidemic and the community benefits of bookselling. The partnership turned out to be timely (follow-up story here).
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