A Store For Multicultural Children’s Books Closes, But Its Mission To Share Diverse Stories Continues
The books at MiJa Books stand on the shelves with the front covers facing out.
Dozens of characters peer out as you walk by: An Aztec princess, a young Basquiat, a smiling Popo hugging her grandson, a girl wearing a pink hijab with cat ears.
Owner Stephanie Moran Reed positioned the books intentionally when she opened the store with her husband at the Lakewood Center mall in November 2021.
“Our mission is to showcase books that feature children of color, books by and about authors of color,” Reed said. “As soon as you walk through the store [you] see that beautiful display of color on the shelves.”
500 Lakewood Center Mall, Space 039
Lakewood, CA 90712
MiJa Books is open until Saturday, Jan. 28, from 10 a.m.–8 p.m.
School counselor Catherine Mendez first visited the store last fall in search of a book about creating an ofrenda for Día de los Muertos to share with her 3-year-old daughter.
“The day that I came, to be honest, like, I just wanted to buy the whole bookstore,” Mendez said.
Mendez drove from Fullerton to shop at the store in person for the last time in late January. MiJa Books will close its storefront on Saturday, Jan. 28.
“I wish I had these kinds of books when I was little,” Mendez said. ”I'm just bummed that it's not gonna be a physical space for me to be able to bring my daughter.”
Reed said while this is the closure of one chapter of the MiJa Books story, the mission of getting more diverse books into kids' hands will continue. People will still be able to buy books online, at special events, and at some local schools.
Our mission is to showcase books that feature children of color, books by and about authors of color.
The Origin Of MiJa Books
Reed grew up a voracious reader and spent many hours at the Downey City Library. Her husband Muammar, she said, took a little longer to fall in love with books, in part because he didn’t see himself represented.
Reed is Mexican American and bilingual and Muammar is Black. Their daughter was born in 2019.
“We want her to be proud of who she is and, and know both of her backgrounds and celebrate that,” Reed said.
During the pandemic, Reed and her husband were building a home library.
“We were… trying to find books like the ones we currently carry and it was a struggle,” Reed said.
Children’s books have long failed to reflect the kids that are growing up in our increasingly racially and ethnically diverse country.
When the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison started tracking the diversity of authors and stories in 1985 just 18 of 2,500 books — less than 1% — were written or illustrated by a Black author.
Now the center tracks the representation of Black, Indigenous, Asian, Latino, Pacific Islander and Arab communities. While the diversity of book characters — and the authors and illustrators who create them — have increased, it can still be challenging to track down these titles.
“We weren't seeing enough books with characters of color and the storyline is just kids having fun and living life,” Reed said.
MiJa Books started as a website with book reviews. The name combines the first two letters of their daughter’s first and middle names and is the informal term for daughter in Spanish. The site became an online shop in October 2020.
The Reeds buy books from the major publishers, but also from more than a dozen independent presses and authors, like Orange County architect Tenille Bettenhausen. She self-published her first children’s book in November.
The main character in “Maybe I’ll Be An Architect” is a Black girl with curly hair pulled into pom-pom pigtails who contemplates jobs ranging from surgeon to stamp collector.
“I didn't know it was gonna be well received at all, or maybe it was just my mom was gonna buy it,” Bettenhausen said.
Bettenhausen connected with Reed after her mom saw a feature on the store in the local news and the author realized the two were in one of the same children’s book author and illustrator Facebook groups.
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“[Reed] was willing to take a chance and have it here in the store, which is really awesome,” Bettenhausen said.
Criticism And A Changing Industry
The reception to MiJa Books’ mission and storefront has been overwhelmingly positive, Reed said, but there has been criticism from white people and people of color.
A sign behind the cash register at the front of the store identifies the shop as Black and Latina owned.
“I've had people call me racist. I've had people call me a hypocrite,” Reed said. She remembered how after a feature on the local news, a woman called the store concerned with the lack of white representation in the store.
“I don't have thick skin, so that's been really hard for me to have those experiences,” Reed said.
MiJa Books opened during a boom time for independent booksellers — 451 physical new stores have opened since January 2020 according to the American Booksellers Association.
Nationwide, book sales jumped during the pandemic as kids and adults alike spent a lot more time at home.
“After the pandemic, people really were craving the kind of experiential retail that bookstores deliver so well,” said Kristen McLean, an executive director and the primary industry analyst at NPD Bookscan.
If we would have not branded ourselves as Black and Latina-owned, if we were just your average bookstore ... we might have had more sales. But that was not what I was interested in dedicating my time to.
Inglewood’s The Salt Eaters opened in December 2021 and describes its focus online as “stories by and about Black women, femmes, and nonbinary people.” Next month, Octavia’s Bookshelf will open in Pasadena with a goal of highlighting Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color.
There have also been notable closures. Leimert Park’s Black-owned Eso Wan books shuttered its storefront in December after more than three decades.
“There are any number of reasons why bookstores close —economic challenges, lack of community support or mostly predatory pricing by Amazon and other big box stores,” said American Booksellers Association chief communications officer Ray Daniels in an email. “‘These businesses will sell books at a loss to make profit in other areas.”
The Future Of MiJa Books
Ultimately the decision to close MiJa books was driven by economics.
The 2021 holiday season was “amazing.” Were it not for their opening costs, the bookstore would have been profitable, Reed said.
“All of a sudden in the spring, sales numbers started dwindling, like pretty dramatically,” Reed said.
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McLean said that children’s book sales started to taper off in 2022, though they were still higher than in 2019.
“It's not that people don't want these books, or that people don't want children's books,” McLean said. “I think we're just seeing an evolution in how people are finding them and where they're looking for them. And that is part of a larger retail adjustment, not just for bookstores.”
She also noticed several other stores in the mall closing.
“If we would have not branded ourselves as Black and Latina owned, If we were just your average bookstore that sold a variety of things, we might have had more sales,” Reed said. “But that was not what I was interested in dedicating my time to.”
Reed said a promising new avenue for business is Scholastic-style book fairs in local schools.
MiJa books will also be vending at several upcoming festivals.
Closing the physical store will also give the Reeds time to focus on their own creative projects — including publishing their own children’s book about AfroLatinx siblings on a fantastical adventure.
Why People Love MiJa Books
MiJa Books’ last event at the Lakewood storefront was a bilingual storytime.
Author Tenille Bettenhausen and Reed took turns reading to more than a dozen kids, parents, and family members seated on a rainbow mat in the middle of the bookstore.
“I want kids and parents to take away, don't be afraid to ask your kids what they want to be when they grow up,” Bettenhausen said of her book. “It's not a bad question, it's just sparking imagination.”
After the story was over, kids in the audience raised their hand to share their career aspirations.
Leila, 8, wants to be a surgeon and an actress.
“I think it'd be cool to help people and do like very careful stuff to the patient,” Leila said.
Her favorite book also features a witch that shares her name, but she also likes the books in Spanish and the bilingual titles— “because I speak Spanish as well.”
“I really like MiJa books, because it has so many different types of books,” Leila said. “And it's just really fun to come to this bookstore.”
Later that afternoon, restaurant owner Maria Theresa Salazar walked in and asked about a bilingual book she’d recently seen in the window about El Salvador.
“De qué se trata?” “What’s this?” Salazar thought when she saw that the book was bilingual. “Mis nietos hablan en sólo inglés. Pero cuando le hablo español, no me entienden, pero sí, entienden pupusa y comen pupusa, sí.” “My grandchildren only speak English and when I talk to them in Spanish, they don’t understand me, but of course, they understand pupusas.”
She was born in Honduras, but has family ties to El Salvador and her husband is Mexican. Her Long Beach restaurant La Ceiba combines these influences.
“Siempre le hablo a mis nietos de la comida, que sepan sus orígen que se sientan orgullosos de sus abuelos,” Salazar said. “I always talk to my grandchildren about food, so that they learn about where they’re from and are proud of their grandparents.”
The book she originally wanted was out of stock, but Reed pointed her to a few other bilingual titles, including one about food that she could share with her family.
“Qué valiosa la idea. Vale la pena,” Salazar said that the idea of a bilingual bookstore was very valuable. “Yo, la verdad que estoy encantada con esta librería.” "What a valuable idea, it's so worthwhile. Truly I'm delighted with this bookstore."
Reed had to break the news that the store is closing on Jan. 28.
“Es que me dio tristeza,” Salazar said. ““Está bien importante.” ““It made me sad. This [store] is very important.” She added that she doesn’t really use the Internet so it would be difficult to shop online.
Salazar walked out of the store with two books to share with her grandchildren.
“That's definitely the one thing that we're going to miss is not having that, you know, tangible experience, readily available for people,” Reed said. She wouldn’t rule out the idea of opening another MiJa Books storefront one day.
“Stories like that,” Reed said, “it gives us confirmation that what we're doing is important.”
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