More than 3,000 books and records surrounded Willa Robinson as her eyes danced between decades of knowledge and culture gathered in her neighborhood shop, Willa’s Books and Vinyl — the only Black-owned brick-and-mortar book store in Kansas City.
“Opening a store hadn’t been in my plans. I’m a collector, but then collecting got out of hand,” she said, laughing, as Grover Washington’s “Trouble Man” played on a record player, its sounds filling the shop within the towering Citadel Office Building.
Bound by community and a love of reading that only grew with each passing page, Robinson eventually placed her bookmark — and business — in the 422-square-foot East Kansas City space. She learned this spring that a developer plans to demolish the building, which is home to about 150 tenants — a majority of which are Black-owned businesses.
Click here to learn more about plans for the Citadel building and the confusion behind its fate.
Robinson, for one, isn’t ready to reshelve her life into retirement or another career, she said.
Launching a GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign in mid-May to help defray moving expenses, Robinson set a $10,000 goal — met several days later, after fellow entrepreneur and book lover Jahna Riley, founder of Aya’s Coffee + Books, linked to the fundraiser from her popular Instagram account.
The fundraiser is still live. Click here to donate to Willa’s Books and Vinyl.
Click here to read more about Aya’s Coffee + Books.
“The people were very generous,” Robinson said. “I think they realize that this bookstore is a necessary part of the community. I’m the only Black bookstore that’s brick and mortar. … My books are historical — by mainly African American authors and about African American people — and most people come in here looking for historical books. I have all the books you can’t find at Barnes and Noble.”
Click here to check out Willa’s Books and Vinyl.
Chapter by chapter
Robinson’s passion for reading began when she was a young girl growing up in Arkansas, she recalled. Her older brother had polio and would only go to school if she came along.
“He was 6. I was 4,” Robinson shared. “I learned right along with him, and I learned an awful lot. … So much in fact that they skipped me a grade. I had a teacher — her name was Miss Canady — and she found out I could read well. I wasn’t good at math, but I could read well.”
As a young person, Robinson couldn’t easily access books written by Black authors and about Black culture, she said. It wasn’t until she came to Kansas City in 1959 that she started reading Ebony magazine, a staple of African American news, culture and entertainment, and books by Black novelists.
As Robinson’s appreciation for reading reached each new chapter, so did her collection — and spirit of entrepreneurship.
“I started working at the postal service in September of 1966 and worked there for 31 years,” she shared. “In the latter part of that, my boss allowed me to set up and sell books on my days off. And then from there, I sold books on 18th and Vine when they had events like the jazz festival.”
In 2007, Robinson partnered with a friend who collected African artifacts to open the first brick-and-mortar location of Willa’s Books and Vinyl on Troost. That location closed in 2012, with Robinson reopening in 2015 in the Citadel building.
“I like this place. I like the ambience. I like friends hollering at me when they come by. I like when customers come in and out,” Robinson said — noting that her friend owns a retail shop next door. “… I just had some slacks that I needed altered, and there’s a lady on the fifth floor. She’s excellent. Another lady on the sixth floor cuts my hair sometimes.”
In April, Robinson’s husband read a news article detailing the Citadel’s sale to a developer in Nebraska with plans to tear down the building later this fall or early next year to build an apartment building.
“That’s how I found out. No one told us anything about it. It’s disruptive, but I need to be prepared,” she said, explaining that she previously hoped to retire in the Citadel building. “So now, I’m trying to find a place that I am satisfied with — because I am not going to move again. I want it to be a place where I feel comfortable and where people feel safe.”
Vinyl on Vine?
Robinson knows she could fill a larger space, she said, gesturing to the double-stacked shelves in the Citadel shop, though she hasn’t yet pinpointed a new home for the store.
Customers can still visit the Citadel location through the next couple of months, Robinson said, noting the move won’t come until she finds the right location.
“What I have belongs on 18th and Vine, but the rent is too high,” she said. “It would make no sense for me to go down there just to break even. I just want a comfortable space that’s easy to get to with plenty of parking.
“But, I do have this thing in my mind that books are supposed to be in a brown panel room,” she continued, smiling and looking around her shop.
Robinson knows what she likes, she added.
“I like blue glass, so I put it in the store,” she shared. “Nobody will buy it, probably, but I like how it makes the store look.”
The “feel” of the store is important, she continued, so she decorates with art and artifacts that have ties to Black culture. Robinson’s prized item is an African xylophone that hangs on her wall.
“It should be in a museum,” she said, raising her eyebrows.
Robinson walked through her intimate space, pointing out the varied genres of books she carries: religious, political and sports-related literature, just to name a few.
Stopping at the wall of records, Robinson explained it was not until owning a bookstore that she became deeply interested in music.
“When I first opened up, young people came in and bought records,” she said. “Then there were these men who hunt records — that’s their living. They educated me on the types of records I was selling; so I got a pretty good education on blues and jazz and so forth. Before that, all I did was listen and dance to it. But they widened my horizon.”
The purpose of Willa’s Books and Vinyl is to serve as a resource for the Kansas City community to also broaden their views, she shared.
“This bookstore is here for the community,” Robinson said. “If you want to learn about the history of your people, it’s here. If you want to read books that are fun to read, that’s here too. If you’re into historical magazines like Ebony, I have that. You can buy good music here. If you come to Willa’s Books and Vinyl, you’ll have an excellent experience.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that seeks to build inclusive prosperity through a prepared workforce and entrepreneur-focused economic development. The Foundation works to change conditions, address root causes, and break down systemic barriers so that all people – regardless of race, gender, or geography – have the opportunity to achieve economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.