Jahna Riley loves the atmosphere of coffee shops. Connecting with others over coffee and a good book is a personal joy, she said, noting one glaring exception in most shops: inclusivity.
“Kansas City has an amazing coffee scene, but it’s not necessarily one where I see my culture reflected in it,” Riley shared. “I want to be able to bring in folks from the community who might not necessarily see themselves in specialty coffee and give them a super accessible experience.”
Founding Aya Coffee + Books in April 2020 was the first step.
Started as an online bookstore, Aya Coffee + Books in February evolved into a Black History Month Pop-Up shop series. By the end of 2021, Riley hopes to secure a brick-and-mortar storefront on Kansas City’s east side.
Aya — meaning “fern” in African Adinkra symbology — symbolizes defiance, endurance and resourcefulness, she said; it encapsulates the spirit of Riley’s background.
“Growing up as a Black woman on Kansas City’s east side — and knowing that I want my business home to be on the east side as well — I think [the Aya] is a perfect symbol to showcase the beauty and resilience of Kansas City’s residents who are often only looked at through a deficit lens,” she stated.
Once the coffee side of Riley’s business is fully launched, she plans to source her coffee beans from Black farmers and roasters in the United States, she noted.
“Coffee is a crop that’s grown mostly by Black and brown folks, so I want to highlight that experience from farm to cup,” Riley explained. “My goal is to essentially have a supply chain that’s managed and touched by Black and brown folks. I want to highlight different Black roasters across the country.”
A vast majority of the books sold through Aya Coffee + Books are also written by Black authors, sharing candid stories on the history and experience of being Black.
Along with books (and eventually coffee), Riley curated the clothing line Black and Bookish for Aya Coffee + Books. The apparel allows supporters to make a statement and give fellow Black book lovers a way to wear their pride, Riley said.
“Often the narrative around literacy, especially when we talk about our kids, is that there’s a gap,” she explained. “And that is absolutely true; there are kids who are not being served well and need support. But at the same time, there’s this amazing community of Black folks who love to read.
“When you think about the history of our country, there was a point when it was outlawed for folks who look like me to read,” Riley continued. “Black and Bookish is a reclamation of reading for enjoyment and for enrichment — and being proud of that.”
Click here to shop Black and Bookish merchandise.
KC coffee community
The Black History Month Pop-Up shop series was born from other Kansas City coffee shop owners encouraging Riley to bring her online bookstore into a physical space, she shared.
Miel Castagna-Herrera and Curtis Herrera from Café Corazón and Jackie Nguyen from Cafe Cà Phê — who also are coffee shop founders of color — helped Riley get connected to leaders at Messenger Coffee and Blip Roasters, she noted.
“They all wanted to know how they could get involved in helping my idea come to life,” Riley said. “We may be competition to some extent, but we all have different perspectives on coffee and what our shops offer to the community. There is space for all of us.”
Because of her counterparts’ support, Riley launched a pop-up each Saturday in February with her last pop-up planned for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27 at Cafe Cà Phê in the West Bottoms.
Although Saturday’s event is the final chapter of the Black History Month series, Riley assured those who are interested that she will have more pop-ups later this year — as well as online events and other exciting announcements already in the works.
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DuBois Learning Center
One of Riley’s earliest memories: her mother building bookshelves out of milk crates, she said.
“I would spend hours lying by the milk crates and reading different books,” Riley recalled. “My mom is a big reader.”
With her mother’s love for reading passed down to Riley, she strives to give all children that same access to reading, she said. Aya Coffee + Books partnered with the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center to create a book wish list for children in the Kansas City community.
“[The DuBois Learning Center] has done everything from mentorship programs to literacy programs. When I was a kid, I was actually a part of the mentorship program,” Riley said. “… It is pretty humbling to be working alongside the same people who helped me growing up.”
At the coming pop-up at Cafe Cà Phê, Riley’s goal is to sell out of her children’s books, she said.
“Folks can not only shop for themselves, but they can shop for the DuBois Learning Center,” Riley noted. “The proceeds from all sales will be going to the learning center, and I’ll have tons of children’s books that folks can buy and leave with me to be delivered to the learning center.”
For those looking for a good read, Riley shared her top two book recommendations at the moment: “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” by Zora Neale Hurston and “Every Body Looking,” by Candice Iloh.
“‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is a classic coming-of-age tale about Black womanhood,” Riley said. “I’ve read this book at different times in my life — in high school, undergrad, again in my 30s. Every time I get something different from it.
“Zora Neale Hurston is a master of recognizing and celebrating the everyday Black folk. My daughter is named ‘Zora’ after her,” Riley added, smiling. “So I would absolutely recommend that everybody read this book.”
“Every Body Looking” is another coming-of-age tale about a young woman who grows up in the Midwest and moves to the East Coast to attend a historically Black university. It’s a storyline that deeply resonates with Riley, who graduated from Howard University, one of the nation’s largest and most acclaimed HBCUs, she said.
“The novel is written in verse form; I think that is really indicative of contemporary literature and where we’re going,” Riley said. “Candice [Iloh] is also one of my classmates from Howard University. She was one of the first people I met on campus, so it has been a joy to see her blossoming.”
To pick up a copy of these works, and numerous others, visit Aya Coffee + Books at bookshop.org.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.