Kansas City’s newest Black woman-owned, brick-and-mortar bookstore in Midtown has opened its doors, but customers shouldn’t judge the operation by its cover, owner Cori Smith said, revealing an additional first for the metro that has heads and pages turning.
“There’s a technological aspect paired with each book,” explained Smith, owner of BLK + BRWN — Kansas City’s first smart bookstore, designed to empower Black and Brown communities through literature, love, and conversation; three things that make the self-proclaimed “local book pusher” tick — with a technological twist.
“You can scan any QR code and it’ll pull up a different experience paired to the book,” Smith continued, detailing curated components that range from playlists and interviews with authors to book reviews and historic lectures.
“Speeches from Fred Hampton, wine tastings with one of the few Black sommeliers [in the world.] … I just want it to feel like an experience because technology isn’t going away — and it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Smith continued, offering her philosophy on the modernization of literary consumption.
“I think giving people an opportunity to get a little bit of information and then go down their own rabbit holes is how we can continue to share stories.”
Click here to follow BLK + BRWN’s story on Instagram.
Smith opened BLK + BRWN to much fanfare in June at 104 1/2 West 39th St., more than a year ahead of the timeline she’d initially laid out for herself.
“Back in 2019, I was like, ‘I think I want to have a bookstore one day,’” she recalled, noting she got involved with programming offered through Entrepreneur Business Basics soon after, committed to the idea of building out a steady side hustle while she worked as a project director for Legal Aide of Western Missouri and in between her head volleyball coaching duties in the Kansas City Kansas Public School District.
“Then COVID happened. … The plan after that was June 1, 2020. I was like, ‘I’m going to be ready to launch the business,’ and then hopefully grow it into a retail space.”
But the COVID-era kept writing new chapters, Smith added.
“[As the pandemic continued] I was like, ‘I don’t know, I’ll wait, we don’t know what the world looks like. … But then the world seemed to just kind of open back up a little bit and people were finding themselves in literature and other coping mechanisms for COVID.”
“I was just kind of like, ‘The time is coming.’ So I gave myself a date — Feb. 22, 2022,” she said, adding yet another twist in her entrepreneurial tale was just a flip of the page away.
“I stay in the Midtown area and I happened to be driving one day and looked over and saw this space and it was literally the one. It had all the things I wanted,” Smith said, detailing ins and outs that made the 39th Street storefront the perfect home for her to pen history.
“It was weird because I drive down that street all the time and [had] never bothered to look. I never bothered to see this area, but things worked out.”
From there, Smith quickly shifted her plans, readying the store as quickly as possible, hoping to tie its grand opening to another milestone: the first Juneteenth holiday to be formally recognized by the federal government.
“[BLK + BRWN] is the first of its kind. There aren’t any other existing smart bookstores. So, on a day of history, I wanted to be as Black as possible.”
Such a mission carries itself out well beyond the holiday, Smith continued, offering insight into what she hopes the retail space can become and what it can accomplish in Kansas City.
“I go off of my spirit. That’s how I pick the books out, that’s how I place the books where I place them. Blackness as a whole is art to me,” she explained.
“There’s usually about 100 different titles in the store at one time — and maybe 40 percent of it I’ve actually read all the way through either on my own or for school or something that’s really made an impact on me or for me. The other half are books that I want to read.”
Inventory selections are also intentional in their representation and celebration of Blackness, Smith said.
“From the dark history of medical and health-related trauma and racism to the autobiography of Gucci Mane or ‘The Marathon Don’t Stop: The Life and Times of Nipsey Hussle,’” she said, explaining the importance of the store’s inventory and the intention with which it’s curated.
Click here to learn more about BLK + BRWN or to shop online.
“I don’t want to miss anybody — because all of it matters,” Smith said, quick to emphasize that Blackness has its own, unique and distinct meaning to each individual experiencing it.
“I try to get a little bit of everything. I have poetry; I have autobiographies; I have cookbooks; I have children’s books — the whole gamut.”
“In all the different ways that we see art, whether it’s a painting on a canvas or a quote from a book, a lyric in a song — it’s all art. And I want us [as Black people] to feel like we’re valuable. Art galleries are expensive. This is a piece of our Blackness that is valuable and you can take it home with you. People should have access to things that are valuable. So that’s the intention. It’s always about access. I always want people to have access.”
Click here to read about another Black-owned bookstore in Kansas City, Willa’s Books and Vinyl, or here to read about entrepreneur Jahna Riley’s plan to bring her pop-up, Aya Coffee + Books, to a permanent home on Kansas City’s east side.
As the story of BLK + BRWN is written, Smith hopes to extend her efforts into community-focused work, ramping up her additional work with Cody’s Homies — a mentorship program she founded for Black youth, built to honor the legacy of her late brother, Cody, the victim of a 2019 motorcycle accident.
“Cody was many things to many people,” Smith said on the program’s website.
“He was a son, a brother, a father, a nephew, a dancer, a tattoo artist, a ‘chef.’ He started a bike club, [and] even dabbled in music. It was important for me to pay homage to the person I credit with sparking my creative interests [and] being my point of reference to follow my passion.”
The loss of her brother helped her better understand the importance of space making in her community, Smith said. She’s hopeful the effort will provide a safe space for kids and adults, allowing them access to learning opportunities they’ve been historically denied.
As she works to create space for the Black community at various seats at various tables, a tea shop, community center, performing arts studio space, and an art gallery are all outlets Smith hopes to bring to life through BLK + BRWN in years to come, she told Startland News.
“To be here in this position every single day, I wake up and I get to be my most authentic self. I get to be excited about what I do and I get to do advocacy and community work and education [work] in a way that makes sense to me and in a way that feels impactful to me,” Smith said.
“I feel amazingly free,” she added, noting the feeling comes amid mounting pressures of the COVID-era and talks of additional lockdowns and mandates — things that could easily scare a new business owner out of pursuing a dream endeavor.
“Every day I get to come into the store and I get to talk to people that I would never have had access to or been able to talk to — and that’s the most rewarding part of it. That alone, that’s it. That’s all I need. It’s amazing. [And it’s] amazingly scary.”
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.