“I want this to be a landmark”

When Flint native Egypt Otis opened Comma Bookstore and Social Hub (132 Second Street) downtown Flint this summer, her main goal was to create a space that is inclusive and representative of the diverse community it resides in.

A major example of that philosophy at work is with Comma’s Kusoma kids club, which focuses on literacy, cultural awareness, and financial fitness through programs online and at the store.

“We introduce more realistic topics that allow children to ask questions about things that sometimes I think people forget that children experience,” Otis said. “For example, we have one about Muslim girls wearing a hijab. Kids can be very curious about that. We create a safe space to ask those questions.”

Kusoma is open to all kids and is $5 per month for Flint residents. Kids receive a book every month and access to events in the store and online. The program is free to kids who demonstrate financial need. More information is available online.

During Comma’s grand opening in September, Otis answered a few questions from Flintside about her motivations for opening a bookstore in the community, her passion for Flint, and her desire to make Comma a destination that draws people into the city.

Flintside: What is it about Flint that made you want to start your business here, downtown?

Egypt Otis: “Flint is my home. I think it’s important that we help invest in our city. Right now, unfortunately, some people travel out and start businesses elsewhere or live elsewhere, and I think it’s really important to stay grounded where you come from and give the community something that is for them. I can’t do that in any other city, I can only do that in my own city. I’m a community organizer, so to me it’s personal. This is my home, this is where I’m staying.”

Flintside: You can instantly tell whenever you meet someone who is from Flint because of the pride they have. What is it about Flint that you love and that has kept you here?

Egypt Otis: “Family, we live here, we’re from here, honestly, I don’t know any other place but Flint. I went to school here, my daughter attends Flint Schools. For me, Flint is very unique. We went through a lot of ups and downs with General Motors, other economic downturns, the water crisis, and right now, we’re in this stage of rebuilding what the community used to be and making it better. Because it’s so centered around culture, and the business is centered around local entrepreneurs and artists and musicians, it helps people stay interested and contributing and investing in the city instead of leaving. Flint is just home, to be honest. If you want your city to be better, you’re going to have to work at it, not leave. I’m one of those people who wants to contribute to make it better. We’re in this pivotal moment where it can make us or break us, and I really want Flint to make it, so that’s why I’m here.”

Flintside: So much of literature, even how it’s taught in schools, how it’s presented in bookstores or libraries, a lot of it is presented through a white lens. How important is it to have stores like this that can expose people to new authors, new works, even older pieces that just weren’t as widely known but people can still learn about or find in your store?

Egypt Otis: “It’s really important in a city where our literacy levels are low, you introduce things in a way that’s attractive to residents and inclusive. It has to be representative of the demographic of the community. Someone like James Baldwin, it’s important to introduce literature like that from Black and Brown authors because we’re in a Black and Brown city, and the topics that I provide within the store are more representative of the circumstances and lived experiences of the residents. You really have to understand your community in order to curate books in a bookstore. I have to make sure I’m being inclusive.

“One of the most important things for me is to also make sure there’s more progressive topics. That hasn’t always been something that has been provided in Flint -- you’d have to go to Detroit or Ann Arbor to find more progressive, inclusive books. The types of books we have in the store, I’m trying to be intentional about who we are and make sure no one is left out.”

Flintside: This space, the fact that it used to be Pages Bookstore, how cool is it for you to revive the space and have a bookstore in here again?

Egypt Otis: “My aunt-in-law had her baby shower in Pages Bookstore. For me, it kind of felt like fate. I want to be able to build on the legacy that was left before me. It made me feel like it was meant to be.”

Flintside: As a reader and consumer of books, especially as a community activist and organizer, what are some of the people or topics that you’re reading about or would recommend right now?

Egypt Otis:Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall is about feminist movement subculture that has been often left behind. Reading, for me, provided me with an opportunity to travel and learn other cultures and perspectives without having to pay to go get that experience in person. I grew up in the inner-city of Flint, so I didn’t have the privilege of being able to travel domestically or internationally. Books for me helped transform my life, my way of thinking about people, about the world. As an organizer, you connect people with resources. Knowledge is something that should be shared and that’s what I want to do here. I want to share knowledge, and share people with each other because we learn from one another. There are so many different books in this store that people haven’t had an opportunity to see on a shelf and it’s new to them and they’re excited to have that representation. I’ve had white, Black, Muslim, Arab, and Latinx people all come in today and buy books that resonate with them and their culture and communicate with teach other. It’s a beautiful thing to see. Books are about community and sharing knowledge and sharing stories.”

Flintside: You’ve already done quite a few community events and had a lot going on as you’ve opened. What are your long-term hopes or goals for the store?

Egypt Otis: “Honestly, I want this to be like a landmark. I want this to be a destination place. In order for our city to be the way I imagine it can be, people have to go here because they want something. I want people to feel like they want to travel to Flint from an hour, two hours away to go to Comma. Our residents are used to traveling to other cities to get things or experiences instead of creating those things here that we want. I see it as a community-driven place where people feel like home, a social hub where people feel comfortable and hopefully we’re here the next 10 years, 20 years.”

Read more articles by Patrick Hayes.

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