Pamela Blair taught her children at an early age about the positive, and often hard-to-find, stories and histories of African Americans. When she noticed how other parents and teachers were struggling to find representation, she decided to open her own multicultural bookstore in University City—no business plan, just a hundred books and a passion.
Pamela and Jeffrey Blair shared their love of history and reading with their four children at an early age while in Montclair, NJ. The Blairs’ youngest son, Ezra, entered kindergarten at a third grade-reading level. He soon became bored, and his youthful energy led to frequent school consequences for “acting up.” Pamela asked the school to advance him to second grade, but they refused, citing concerns about his motor skills.
Pamela began homeschooling her son. She says, “We did not get support from anyone.” Other parents said her son would become spoiled. The school superintendent told her she was ill-equipped. She says, “That just made me want to do it more.”
The following semester, a teacher suggested her daughter, Naomi, be placed in a special class in second grade because “she doesn’t know how to learn.” Pamela then decided to homeschool Ezra, Naomi, and her twin sister, Sarah. She says, “Half my homeschool time was just doing research, having to break everything down to a second and third grade level.” The elder Jeffrey, Jr., was given assignments on top of his regular schoolwork.
When it came to history, Pamela taught her children the history of African Americans. “We went from Egypt to modern times,” she says, “based on where we are as Black people—the rest of the world was side stories.” She often made posters and wrote Biblical stories celebrating the greatness of Black people.
In 2010, Jeffrey got a job in North St. Louis as general attorney with the Social Security Administration. The family moved to Kirkwood and the children were enrolled in middle school there.
Pamela says her daughters, both avid readers, complained about the books they were offered. One was furious and told her, “I’m just this passive individual and a white person has to save me? I don’t need to be saved!” A Black librarian at the school ordered books from other libraries for her daughters.
By the time her daughters were in high school, Pamela says they were challenging history teachers to explain what Black people were doing in a period or location that they were studying. The teachers, however, would not discuss anything that wasn’t in the curriculum. Other Black parents would ask Pamela how her children knew the stories, and she would offer them a book. They soon formed a book club. Pamela thought all Black kids should have access and decided to open a bookstore.
Pamela started contacting publishers, her realtor found a space at 7827 Olive Blvd., and EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore was opened in 2015. Pamela put the hundred books she owned on the shelves. The grand opening was attended by the mayor and Pamela says it went very well. “I thought, great, I’m going to have all the Black people come and they’re going to learn and grow.”
The following week, they had one customer. Pamela thinks people were afraid because they didn’t know what to expect. She remembers one patron was surprised the store was “allowed” to be there. Others wondered why she would open a brick-and-mortar store in the age of online ordering.
After six months of making fifty dollars a week, she began to doubt how great the need was. She considered closing, but then a Clayton schoolteacher, Paya Sample, entered the store with her two children. The woman told Pamela the teachers had just discussed being unable to find Black books to add to the curriculum. Pamela motioned to her full shelves. The teacher invited Pamela to a teacher book fair. Pamela took her entire inventory and sold thousands of dollars’ worth of books. Pamela says, “She changed my life.”
EyeSeeMe expanded its presence at book fairs, often with one advocate helping her get through bureaucratic barriers, and the store added a multicultural section.
Another life-changing event happened in 2017 when eleven-year-old Sidney Keys III came into EyeSeeMe with his mother, Winnie Caldwell. Winnie was a blogger who surprised her bookworm with a trip to the store. He quickly found the book Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire: The Lemonade Escapade by Ty Allen Jackson. Pamela says the kid on the cover looked just like him. He sat on the carpet and stayed for two hours reading the entire book. His mother took pictures and video for a social media post.
By the next day, the post had already received 50,000 views and everyone was calling Winnie and the bookstore. Winnie and Sidney created a book club, Books N Bros, which met at the store, and the media took notice. Sidney, his mom, and the EyeSeeMe were featured on NBC Nightly News and the Steve Harvey Show. The club has grown considerably and Sidney, now a sophomore at Pace Academy college preparatory, has written a book, Cool Bros Read, the motto of the club.
Pamela says the story put them on the map and inspired a lot of boys to read, but she was a little embarrassed by the attention, asking, “Why is it amazing that a little Black boy can read?” By 2019, the store had outgrown its space and moved about a mile east to its current location at 6951 Olive Blvd. The next major media moment came during the pandemic.
COVID and Black consciousness
EyeSeeMe makes the most of its revenue between the winter holidays and May. In March 2020, Pamela says she first felt the effects of the COVID pandemic when a delivery driver brought back unopened boxes of books she had purchased. The book fairs were cancelled, and then, everything shut down.
In April 2020, the Blairs planned to close the bookstore and created a GoFundMe campaign hoping to get $25,000 to pay off their outstanding debts. They raised the money in three days, and it kept growing. She says she cried as donations and emails begging them not to close came in from all around St. Louis. “That’s when I understood,” she says, “In the middle of COVID—people losing their jobs, people in their homes—they think we have value!” The bookstore stayed open.
Customers reached out to EyeSeeMe wanting books for their children, but they weren’t sure which ones they should order. Pamela started offering monthly book box subscriptions, which contained two to three books—tailored for children by age range and grade—delivered to the front door, with Pamela choosing each book. The subscription reaches nearly every state across the country.
June 2020 began with the release of the video showing the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, under the knee of a police officer. Pamela says everyone started ordering inclusion and equity books. “The first day, we got $30,000 in orders,” she says.
Pamela says the message at the time was to order from Black-owned bookstores. From June to October 2020, she added 14 employees and was at the store from 6 a.m. until midnight. Unfortunately, many books ended up on back order, and customers became angry. While she loved the sales and providing jobs, most of the money went to paying bills and employees. She says many of the people haven’t ordered since. Pamela wants the store to be a safe space for all races—about half of her customers are White. She says, “When we started this, it wasn’t for anyone but Black kids. It seemed like White people were coming in and saying, ‘My kids need to know this, too, and we want to learn.’”
Banned books and future projects
Last February, the ACLU of Missouri on behalf of students in the Wentzville school district filed a lawsuit to stop the restriction or removal of eight books about racial and sexual minorities. Pamela received a call from St. Charles schools asking if a group of teachers and librarians could come to the bookstore for a professional development day. Pamela prepared a presentation, but they wanted to talk about the list of banned books.
EyeSeeMe began a partnership with In Purpose Educational Services (IPES), an organization focused on creating leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion. IPES raised money to offer banned books for free to students in Missouri. Three thousand parents reached out and the organization raised more money. EyeSeeMe sent out 600 copies of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (the district has since reinstated that book) to parents from several states.
In March, IPES offered the banned books: Ron’s Big Mission, a true story about a nine-year-old in 1959 who was denied a library book because he was Black; the non-fiction Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by X. Kendi for adolescents; and All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir of growing up as a young queer Black boy for the older kids.
EyeSeeMe is putting the finishing touches on an in-store smoothie bar to provide healthy smoothies, vegan snacks, milkshakes, and hot chocolate. Coffee from locally owned Northwest Coffee Roasting Co. will be available and artwork from local artists will be on display. Once opened, the bar will be available in the afternoons and on weekends, and EyeSeeMe will switch from virtual to in-person story time.
Pamela is working closely with several school districts, including Ferguson-Florissant, Webster Groves, and Ladue. Parkway recently received two grants which require purchases from EyeSeeMe. Pamela says, “As a Black woman business owner, I want to make sure we exceed certain standards and go above and beyond for a lot of our schools that aren’t used to dealing with Black businesses.”
PBS Channel Nine recently partnered with EyeSeeMe to create Drawn In!, a program to encourage reading for kids ages 6-8, and the store will offer a Black history program on Saturdays. The store is open Tuesday through Friday, 11 am to 5:30 pm, and on Saturdays from 11am to 4 pm, but the space can be available off hours.
Pamela says she is reminded by her daughter to appreciate her successes, but she is always busy looking at the next thing. “I don’t think about yesterday. I don’t celebrate myself. There’s always something to do next. What do we do today so tomorrow will be okay?”
Three of the Blair children attended Washington University in St. Louis and the eldest, Jeffrey Jr., will be graduating from Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine in May. Pamela says, “I tell people I brainwashed my kids, letting them believe they’re the best in everything they do—everybody wants to be you. It’s a necessity—we have to let them know how great they are.”