Monday, August 8, 2022

'We need to be able to see ourselves': Lansing's first Black woman-owned bookstore opens

January 17, 2022
<p>Nyshell Lawrence, owner of Socialight Society bookstore, photographed on Jan. 13, 2022.</p>

Nyshell Lawrence, owner of Socialight Society bookstore, photographed on Jan. 13, 2022.

Photo by Jared Osborne | The State News

In 2017, Nyshell Lawrence and her husband went on a date to a local bookstore. Upon finding a lack of representation in women authors of color, Lawrence vowed that one day, she would open her own bookstore to celebrate Black women.

Now, after a grand re-opening Jan. 8 at the Lansing Mall, the Socialight Society is a dream come to life for Lawrence. 

“I thought it was something I would do when my kids were older, when I retired, but opportunities opened up,” Lawrence said.

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Lawrence started her passion project with online book clubs, where readers could experience books written by Black authors, together. Then, Lawrence did pop-up shops at local businesses, where she was able to share these books with the community. These pop-ups turned into a micro-shop at Soul Nutrition.

However, after only a few weeks, Lawrence found out that Soul Nutrition would be closing at the end of the year. 

“It was either go home or do a quick pivot and figure something else out,” Lawrence said.

Thankfully, on Jan. 8, Socialight Society had its grand opening at the Lansing Mall.

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Wondering about the name, Socialight Society?

“It’s funny,” Lawrence said. “It kind of just really sort of came to me!”

She said that the beginning “Social” was related to sociology and people, and “Light” symbolizes that Lawrence wants the store to be a light in the lives of others.

“It’s important to me that (Black women) are celebrated not just for their accomplishments," Lawrence said. "I want to celebrate you for just who you are."

Lawrence said she found that Lansing offered an eager and receptive community of book lovers who wanted a space to come together and celebrate their identities through reading, which helped spur the company’s rapid growth. 

Even when Socialight Society was just a pop-up shop, Lawrence said she grew used to hearing questions like, “So, when’s the building coming?" "Where are you located?" "How can we come and stay awhile?”

With this new space, Lawrence intends to hold events such as book readings for children, storytimes for adults, celebrations the community and holding space for local, Black authors. 

Lawrence said Lansing is already loving Socialight Society.

“One thing that’s really been amazing is when Black women come in here. … So many come in just to say, 'Thank you,'” Lawrence said.

For most guests, stepping into Socialight Society is the first time they’ve experienced a roomful of books that honor and celebrate their identities. Lawrence said that many guests are already excited to plan events at the bookstore. 

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“Bookstores in general have always been a hub for community gathering and for education,” Lawrence said.

While Lawrence opened the Socialight Society with the primary goal of celebrating Black women, she’s found that the store has already been a tool for activism.

“I did not realize how big of an opportunity there would be to speak about anti-racism or talk about more social justice issues,” Lawrence said.

Socialight Society is a place of education, where non-Black customers can explore authors' representations of their Black experience through Lawrence’s recommendations. Additionally, the children’s book section has a vast selection of books that non-Black children can read to gain exposure to different cultures. 

“Bookstores … are definitely the start for those conversations,” Lawrence said.

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Lawrence said having resources like Socialight Society lessens the burden on Black Americans to educate their non-black colleagues, friends and neighbors about their experience. Representation is power, and Lawrence wants to empower Black women in Lansing.

“We need to be able to see ourselves — we’re described as the minority, but we are not minor,” Lawrence said.

“Roots” by Alex Haley was the first book that showed Lawrence the importance of representation, and some of her other favorites include “Sula” by Toni Morrison and “Black Girl, Call Home” by Jasmine Mans. Her favorite children’s books include “Young, Gifted and Black” by Jamia Wilson and “Black Boy Joy” by Kwame Mbalia. All these books are available for purchase at Socialight Society. 

If you are looking to get involved in a community of book lovers, Socialight Society has a book club, where they read a book every month and gather together — virtually or in-person — to discuss. Anyone from anywhere can join and read a selection of Lawrence’s favorite books.

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