The Life Enrichment Bookstore, more commonly known as L.E.M.S, in Columbia City has been an iconic fixture in Seattle for over 20 years. It’s the last known Black-owned bookstore focused on the African diaspora in the Pacific Northwest.
Today, Tylicia Messiah and her uncle, Hassan Messiah are working to preserve the L.E.M.S. legacy her grandmother Vickie Williams started while building toward a better future for their community.
“It’s my plan to historically preserve this space and keep it the bookstore that it always was,” Tylicia said.
HISTORY OF L.E.M.S.
L.E.M.S. first opened in the mid-1980s as a Christian bookstore owned by Vickie’s mother and aunt. When Vickie took over the bookshop with her wife, Aaliyah Messiah, in the early ‘90s, she sought to dig deeper into her cultural heritage. She was an educator before owning the bookstore and wanted to build a space where the Black community could learn about their history and celebrate their culture.
“As she started to grow her catalogue of Black authors, it gave people who were most vulnerable to societal discrimination a safe space to be able to purchase books on their heritage,” Tylicia said.
On top of selling literature by Black authors and about Black experiences, L.E.M.S was a thriving community hub. The bookstore hosted cultural events and educational programs like African religious services, Kwanzaa bazaars for Black-owned businesses, as well as recovery groups and job training for people who were formerly incarcerated.
“It was always a space where everybody in the community, especially in the Black community, always knew they had a safe space to come and [talk] about different topics and issues,” Hassan said.
Vickie’s absence in the community was palpable when she passed in 2017. Thousands attended her funeral to celebrate her life. The bookstore was forced to close, but the space continued as an event venue run by her godson, Hassan.
BUILDING ON A LEGACY
Hassan teamed up with Estelita’s Library in February 2019 to help crowdfund to keep L.E.M.S. open and expand their programming, including reopening the bookstore. The community raised over $90,000 over the course of the year, which was well above their $70,000 goal.
“It really let me know that the love that people have for L.E.M.S.,” Hassan said. “Which I already knew, but that solidified it.”
Tylicia joined the team at L.E.M.S at the beginning of 2020 and has also been a driving force to restoring the bookstore to its former glory.
Since joining, the 25-year-old has been organizing and cataloguing the books, managing inventory, and setting up meetings with elementary schools to provide them with educational books. She’s also participated in outdoor markets at Jimi Hendrix Park and churches in the Seattle area, which has been a longstanding tradition at L.E.M.S.
“One tradition that my grandma always did was take all of the books and some of our stuff to local outside vending events, and I’m trying to uphold that tradition so that we don’t lose track or lose connection with that side of the community too because that is a predominantly Black side of the community,” Tylicia said.
Before joining L.E.M.S., Tylicia said she didn’t fully realize the impact her grandmother’s bookstore had on the community. She grew up around the L.E.M.S. so, to her, she genuinely saw the people at L.E.M.S. as members of her family.
“There was a very thin line between the community and family,” she said.
In February 2020, Tylicia explored different exhibits around Seattle for Black History Month at the Wa Na Wari and The Unspoken Truths by Delbert Richardson. There, she ran into people who she thought were her family members growing up — turns out, they were part of the large community surrounding L.E.M.S. She began to realize just how deeply connected people were to the space and how widespread the community was.
This was when she got the idea to get more involved at her grandmother’s bookstore. Initially, her goal was to start an artist residency program at L.E.M.S., but she quickly realized the store wasn’t what it used to be when she was growing up. The leftover books were piled up in boxes in the back, so she decided to invest her energy in helping her uncle restore and reopen L.E.M.S. Bookstore.
“I didn’t feel right trying to do anything that I had in mind, like involving the residency or art, until I made sure the books were being sold, they were catalogued, the shop was open, and that we were present in the outdoor events like we always were,” Tylicia said.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Hassan’s and Tylicia’s goal is to not only restore and preserve L.E.M.S., but to also help modernize the bookstore to meet the needs of the community today.
“I have a vision of L.E.M.S. being more of a media center on top of being a bookstore and an event space,” Hassan said.
In the future, Hassan plans to include a radio and podcasting station, a recording studio for film and TV, as well as sell his clothing line Rainier Avenue Clothing Company. Tylicia plans to start a book club as well as an artist residency program where female artists can record their music at L.E.M.S. for free.
“I just want to create a safe space where people can come and celebrate,” Tylicia said. “Right now, I’m just focused on the books because of COVID, but I’m praying people trickle in the way that they were so I can make my grammy proud.”
The bookstore officially reopened in December 2020, and Tylicia said she hopes she can continue the legacy her grandmother started.
“I’m so passionate about this place,” Tylicia said. “It’s definitely something I want to do for the rest of my life.”
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