Q&A | Discussing books, growth & community with bookstore owner, Egypt Otis
This year has been one for the books as COVID-19 brought about unexpected changes and an overwhelming air of uncertainty. While most people wondered how 2020 could get even worse, others chose to find a silver lining. For Egypt Otis of Flint, the pandemic gave her the incentive to follow her dream and open up a bookstore in the heart of her hometown.
The GOODS: Let’s start by telling us a little about yourself.
Egypt Otis: "I'm a Flint native, and I currently live in Flint, too. I come from a background of mostly social work, and I transitioned to more political work because I started realizing that in order to make real change, you have to do it on a systemic level.
So, I worked in community organizing for some time and advocacy. I see this bookstore as being an extension of my organizing work because I can finally organize the way that I want to without actually having to represent a larger organization which can vary."
TG: What was your experience like growing up in Flint?
Egypt: "I've had a pretty interesting childhood, to be honest with you. I grew up in a single parent household. My grandparents helped my mother in raising me as she had challenges as a young single mother. They definitely stepped into that role in my life because I didn't have a consistent place where I grew up. For about 10 or 11 years, I was on the North side of Flint on Forest Hill and Welch. I actually graduated with my GED, so I didn't graduate from my high school and have like the formal graduation, walking across the stage, etc.
I think that's what separates me a little from what I think people view as a traditional business owner. Many people assume that you’ve had a life that predicted your future career or that you didn’t have to face many challenges. For me, growing up, I had a tumultuous childhood, but was very fortunate to have grandparents who were able to step in in ways that my mom could not. I had my GED, then transitioned to University of Michigan Flint to get a bachelor's degree in political science."
TG: What's your earliest or best memory about visiting a bookstore as a child?
Egypt: "When I was a kid, I said that books gave me a headache! (laughs). I did not like to read. It was too much for me because I didn't have that expectation, and I was going through a lot of pretty intense situations growing up. Even with my grandparents, they were very religious, my grandfather is a pastor of a Pentecostal church, very traditional.
The expectations for me were more like, you graduate and get married. Anything outside of that is just extra. I never really had a natural gravitation toward books until I was older and pursued higher education. That's honestly where I found myself and my niche in my community.
Books introduced me to a new way of thinking and new perspectives on life. It goes to show that it's never too late to change, to evolve, to have goals for yourself."
TG: What book made you say, “You know what? I'm gonna read this book. Oh wow, I am in love with this book! I wanna read more”?
Egypt: "The Alchemist. That book really changed my life. It changed the way that I view the world and the world connection to myself. It was very allegorical and taught me that the world conspires for you to achieve your personal destiny. I was going through a very hard time, and was working as a case manager for a program, then the entire organization I worked for lost their grant. All of our jobs were gone.
I forgot to mention that I have a daughter, so I was also in a moment of crisis because I was taking care of a child. I don't even remember how I came across this book, but when I read it, it really made me feel more confident that everything is going to be fine no matter what happens. It's for a reason and I truly believe that. I truly believe everything in your life happens for a reason. It can be for the better or it can be for the worst, but there is a reason.
When I first went to UofM, I started reading all of these different types of books that were very challenging because I pursued a major where heavy reading was involved. I chose that major because I wanted to do more on a systemic level, but I also really wanted to challenge myself.
As I was learning more and more about different types of politics and government structures, I was reading all these different essays and books. My first year at that university changed me completely. My family and friends were like, “You don't even sound like yourself anymore,” but for the better.
It was because of those books, those resources that expanded the way that I thought and viewed the world. It's like getting the ability to travel without actually having to pay for a plane ticket. During my first year at university, I started to find who I was, and really just started reading vigorously, and became my own person. I really love books now. Every-time I travel, I go to an independent bookstore and purchase a book because it gives you access to knowledge."
TG: As a creative entrepreneur, I know you come up with great ideas all the time, even if you don't act on them. What was your “aha” moment that made you seriously want to open up Comma?
Egypt: "The pandemic. I was working on a campaign as a Central Michigan director. However, because of the pandemic, the campaign ceased and we had to stop completely which meant my job stopped. So, I was thinking about life and how nothing in life is guaranteed. Before the lay-off, I was actually thinking about how you just have to take a risk sometimes and really pursue your goals and dreams. I saw the lay-off as a moment of opportunity to do just that.
I'm in a relationship with someone who owns a few businesses that are successful. I've honestly never been the type of person who would take a risk. I'm very calculated. I like to plan things ahead. I try to be as strategic as I can when it comes to like my professional endeavors. With risk-taking, there's too much uncertainty attached to it, but to see somebody else do it and be successful at it gave me a boost of confidence.
So, I was literally driving and was like, “I want to open up my bookstore,” and I looked at him for confirmation. He was like, “Yeah!” and that's really how it happened. I already had this vision in my mind, I just didn't have the confidence to act on it.
With that said, the crisis really gave me more confidence to do it now because I'm like, “What do I have to lose at this moment? I don't have a job anyways, right?” (laughs). I felt like I should make this moment count, and it's been the best decision I've ever made."
TG: What have been some initial challenges to getting the store off the ground?
Egypt: "Money. If it wasn't for my GoFundMe, I wouldn't have been able to do half of what I have been doing now. It helped with the inventory, everything that I have in the store, etc. So, money was definitely a big factor. And also because of the fact that we're in a pandemic. We can't really be at capacity because of social distancing, and have to make sure that the necessary PPO's are accessible. I have to make sure that my employees and I are safe as well as the community and general public.
There was also another challenge, and I think it's unique to black businesses. There is such a thing as systemic racism and implicit bias when it comes to funding. There are a lot of grants now being created for African-American businesses because they know that we are largely ignored for other grants that are accessible to non-people of color.
So with that, there are a lot of Black and Brown businesses that do not get the financial support they need, especially in this pandemic, simply because they are Black or Brown people. And that's something that has been amplified during this pandemic.
I sit on a few different committees, and I’ve even had to address some of those structural issues that leaves Black businesses out. It's because there is a majority of white leadership, and a lot of these philanthropic organizations are taking charge of the disbursement of grants. So, I would definitely say a very unique challenge for business owners who are Black is just structural racism."
TG: What types of books will Comma stock and particularly specialize in?
Egypt: "Black and Brown-themed books. By that, I mean authors. I'm very intentional of incorporating Black and Brown authors, and allies, of course. I want people to know that we’re going to have a Black and Brown authors in any type of genre whether it's fiction, nonfiction, children's books, etc. So, I do say that we are a progressive bookstore and I’m very inclusive. We have LGBTQ books authored by people of color. I think it’s very important to make sure our queer Black and Brown community works are acknowledged right along with feminism, civil rights history, and Muslim-focused books.
I mean, honestly, the intention of this is to make sure that there is representation in this bookstore. Flint is a primarily Black city, and we have Latinx communities, too. We have a high Muslim and Arab population. It doesn't make sense to me that we don't have books that represent that. So, those are the books that we have that are representative of the community at large."
TG: What's the social hub part of Comma?
Egypt: "The social hub is where we have different events and topics that fit the whole purpose of the bookstore. As an organizer, that's really where my organizing comes in. We can have discussions and events about important issues and conversations that I think directly impacts Black and Brown communities and offer a space for other organizations to come in have events. For example, I have someone coming in who's doing African doll making, sewing and weaving which fits the philosophy of the bookstore. So, the social hub is just really creating a sense of community here within the bookstore."
TG: Let's say I have a book out right now. Could I get my book in your store? If so, what is the process that a local author would have to go through?
Egypt: "I'm so happy you mentioned that! We carry local authors as well. It's a fairly easy process to be honest with you. When someone reaches out to me about getting their book in the store, I like to get a copy or two just to see if it's a good fit. I want to make sure that I would be turning a profit too, making sure that it's something that people are purchasing. We already have a few locally-authored books in the store. The process is really just you emailing me, me getting a copy, reading it over, and then we talk about the details like pricing and whatnot."
TG: What advice would you give to an aspiring bookstore owner who wants to open up a store in their community?
Egypt: "I would say if you've made the decision to do it, know your niche. What separates you from others? Maybe there's not a comic store near you and you can change that. I would encourage people to take time to look at their demographic and know who their customer base is.
Luckily for me, I'm in downtown Flint where there's colleges and businesses so I'm already generating a customer base that's basically created for me. I know my demographic, I know who I'm selling to. Location is everything.
Also, think about what else you’re offering inside the bookstore besides books, and make sure that your margins are pretty good, at least 40% or more per book, and build relationships with the community. Those connections are imperative to your existence because you want people to come in there and feel like it’s a safe space for them."
TG: Any shoutouts?
Egypt: "Shout out to my mama! (laughs). I want to shout out to any and everyone who has participated in the process of supporting this bookstore whether you have donated or shared a post of mine, given money or provided a book. I want to shout out Flint for that, everyone who came to the community book drive, all of them.
I also want to say thank you to my partner, Dorian, for believing in me and investing in me, he put in a lot of physical labor and invested so much time, like four o'clock in the morning every day, building, maintaining, cultivating partnerships and purchasing things that he knew I would love in the store. That kind of support system is amazing."
To stay up-to-date on Comma Bookstore, visit: commabookstore.com
If you would like to donate to Comma Bookstore’s GoFundMe page, click here.
The bookstore is also currently accepting book donations.
For local authors looking to seek placement in Comma Bookstore, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
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