MEET THE OWNER: Vera Warren-Williams of Community Book Center

November 25, 2021
Interviewed by Sonali Fernado
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Photo Credit: Justen Williams
Community Book Center

2523 Bayou Raad 
New Orleans, LA 70119

Phone #:
(504) 948-7323

Q: All right, Mama Vera, where did you grow up and how did that bring you to owning your current business?

I grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward across the Industrial Canal. I was surrounded by Black-owned businesses and entrepreneurs and my family who come from a line of business people. So, I was inspired to be an entrepreneur. And I'm also from a family of educators. So the combination of business and education just came together. 

Q: And had you owned a bookstore before you owned this one?

No, actually, Community Book Center was started as a home-based community service in 1983. I was working as a substitute teacher in the [New Orleans] public school system, and the types of books that positively reflected our history and our culture were not readily available in the classroom or school libraries. Therefore, I started bringing my own personal library books to school, and sharing them with the students and I noticed that it had a profound effect for them to see positive images of themselves on the pages of the books. And so, Community Book Center was born to provide that service and resource to the community throughout the year, not just in February. 

Q: I don't think a lot of people know that. What made you choose the Broad Street area and what keeps you here?

Well, we've been in various locations around the City [of New Orleans]. We moved from Treme, to a larger spot on Broad Street. We moved to Broad Street because we needed a larger space. We had outgrown the space that we had in Treme and we thought that being on Broad Street would provide us greater visibility and a larger space to expand our business. 

Q: And what was it like being on Broad Street when you were there and what drew you to Bayou Road? 

Well,  I could speak to the differences of being on Broad. It was high visibility, and high traffic but because of the lack of [onsite] parking or access to [on-street] parking, it didn't allow people an opportunity to really come in and shop like they wanted to.  People would oftentimes say, ‘Oh, I pass by your place all the time’ and I'm like, ‘well, sometimes I wish you would stop’. But being able to move from a location where we paid rent and into a location where we pay a mortgage [helped]. We moved here [on Bayou Road] in 2003 in celebration of our 20th anniversary. Our basic idea [for our move] was [to practice] what we have on our [exterior] mural “Ujamaa -  familyhood in cooperative economics”,  which is one of the principles of Kwanzaa, and also ‘Kujichagulia - to be self determining.”  The whole idea of being in business for 20 years, and moving forward, if we're going to continue to build and grow, we have to be self-determining. And that means owning the space that we are in, and not being forced to have to move or being under someone else's winds.

So actually, the move to Bayou Road was like an emergency move. But we're grateful that we moved when we did. And it again, it just demonstrates what community and self-determination will do. It's been almost 20 years that we've been here and we're grateful for the support from the community that we continue to have. This is much more like the neighborhood and [to me], that it's a mix of business, but also residential. So we're proud to be a part of this whole commercial cultural corridor that we've established here on Bayou Road. It's my prayer that it not only continues to grow, but that the [existing] people that are here, the [existing] businesses that are here, are able to survive, thrive and to grow.

Q: And what does it mean to be successful as a business owner to you?

Well, to be successful as a business owner, there are a number of things.  I think, in terms of the line of work that we do, our success, primarily now, is measured by the lives that we've transformed. It goes beyond dollars and cents. We're almost 40 years doing this and it has not always been about the money. It's about providing a service to the community. Lately, it has begun to be more profitable but we could still benefit more from increased traffic, diversifying our audience and our business, and more social and E-commerce-driven business. 

Q: And what is your greatest hope for this location on Bayou Road?

The greatest hope for Community Book Center in this location is to continue to build on the legacy that we've started of being a community-based business that is available and accessible to the community at large. That people realize that we're more than a bookstore, but that we are a community resource. That we host other events that help the community overall. [My hope for Bayou Road is] particularly for our youth, and that the neighboring businesses, and residents in the area will be able to maintain their place and position and not be forced out via gentrification or their inability to sustain themselves and their businesses.