"We want to be a valued source of education and knowledge about the cultural richness, historical contributions, and significance of Africa and African people to the world."
Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton, ON is a community-based bookstore that has been in operation for more than 20 years. It is owned and managed by Sean and Carolette Liburd, two book and education enthusiasts. The store is said to be a “dream realized,” and has become a community space and an important resource for many different people and families. Carolette and Sean spoke with CIBA about their raison d'être, their approach to curation of both books and non-book items, and what they love about being indie booksellers.
Can you tell us about the history of your store? How long have you been in operation and how has the store changed over the years?
The store resulted from a brainstorming session between Sean and his sister Michele. Both being avid readers of Black books, they thought it would be a fantastic idea to open a Black bookstore in Brampton. Growing up here, we foresaw the growth of the city – especially in its diversity – and we wanted to make sure young Black children would have access to Black authors and their work at a much earlier age than we did. Knowledge Bookstore opened its doors at 18 Queen Street West in downtown Brampton on December 18, 1997.
Five years after opening, the store moved two blocks west, to a larger retail space that allowed us to stock more products and host events. One of the major changes we made was creating a dedicated room for children’s books, increasing our selection of Black dolls, puzzles, games, and providing a play area for young children. In our new location, we also opened the Liberation Lounge in the lower level, where we host book readings and events.
After many of our customer base expressing an interest shifting to a healthier lifestyle, we created a health and wellness section with raw black soap, shea butter, mango butter, aloe butter, natural deodorants, hair products, and more. With the increase in popularity of music downloads and streaming, it became necessary to eliminate selling CDs and only maintaining a small selection of DVDs, which allowed us more space for these other non-book items. We also increased our selection of bibles after the closure of all the Christian bookstores in Peel.Over the years, we have been the starting point for other businesses who were able to utilize our location – particularly our Lounge – as the start of their own business. We reduced the amount of offsite vending and focused on in-store events, also using our outdoor area. There have been many changes over the past 24 years.
Your store is known as a community space and a resource for parents, writers, poets, artists, and the Black community. What does this look like in your day-to-day operation?
Knowledge Bookstore is much more than a bookstore: we make a connection with every client. We support community members with things like finding professional services and community service organizations, showing them how to register their business online, sharing programming for children and youths and helping them to navigate challenges in the school system, and taking the time to listen to what’s on their mind. We have been blessed to be the venue where young poets have shared their work for the first time, to be able to coach new writers on the process of getting their book published, and to showcase the work of several artists in the community. Pre-pandemic, we hosted exercise, yoga, and dance classes. Additional events include workshops, book clubs, study groups, and even a wedding.
Over the last 24 years, we have supported our clients in numerous ways, and they in turn have returned that support.
We’ve read that you have an incredible children’s section. How do you curate your books for young readers and why is that so important to you?
It is fun curating children’s books for the store. We are strong advocates of encouraging the habit of reading in children as early as possible. The first consideration is the clients we serve and their diverse needs. We look for good quality books that are well-written, illustrated, and culturally representative of the different sub-cultures amongst the Black community. Our curated list is built from sample copies, catalogues from publishers, press releases, social media posts, customer recommendations, media kits from independently published authors, children’s book festivals, blogs, and children’s books award lists. We look for books that are fun and educational as well as inspirational.
You also sell a ton of unique, non-book items in store. Can you tell us about those?
We sell a lot of toys and games. Black is beautiful, and Knowledge Bookstore wants to empower and encourage Black children to love themselves and remind them of their beauty and brilliance. We feel that it is important that Black children see and own toys that they can relate to – like Black dolls and action figures, which provide a positive representation of Black individuals for the child. Games that feature the history and culture of Black children will help to develop a sense of pride in their heritage. We are committed to exposing Black children to toys and games that makes them feel brilliant, beautiful, creative, and confident.
We mentioned some of our health and wellness products before. We believe in a holistic approach, can our product offerings take care of the mind, body, and spirit. We offer several lines of natural products such as soaps, lotions, toothpaste, shea butter, coco butter, mango butter, aloe butter, hair products and essential oils. To sooth the mind and body, customers can treat themselves to incense, smudge, candles, and oil burners. We also carry a selection of sea moss, elderberry, and burdock root for those living a healthy lifestyle.
We are also proud of our selection of gift items. Whether it is a special birthday, a show of appreciation, a Kwanzaa celebration, a Christmas gift, a baby shower, or any occasion, customers will find something at our store. In line with our focus, we offer cultural gift items with beautiful Black images ranging from mugs, water bottles, bible cases, journals, wallets, figurines, greeting cards, paintings, planners, calendars, and more.
We’d love to hear a bit about your team. What is your “store family” like?
Knowledge Bookstore is owned and managed by Sean and Carolette Liburd who are avid readers, community servants, and African-centered education enthusiast. Derrick Williams, one of our first customers who demonstrated a natural ability to teach, has been creating and presenting curriculums for our clients for over 15 years. Sankofa is our go-to host for events and interviews and is a community ambassador.
We are a small, efficient, and highly experienced team of creative individuals. Our youngest team member is 12-year-old Azana, who helps curate children’s books and makes recommendations to her peers. Pre-pandemic, our team also included co-op students, parents looking for work experience, and students looking for their first jobs and completing their volunteer hours.
You specialize in African, African Canadian, African American, Caribbean books and more. Can you share some of your favourite books (whether they are new or older titles)?
Two Thousand Seasons by Ayi Kwei Armah
No Man in the House by Cecil Foster
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes
Jazz by Toni Morrison
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Sacred Woman by Queen Afua
The Spirit of a Man by Iyanla Vanzant
The Will to Change by bell hooks
The Philosophy & Opinions of Marcus Garvey compiled by Amy Jacques Garvey
Maat: The 11 Laws of God by Ra Un Nefer Amen
Seeking the Sakhu by Wade Nobles
Loving Me by Angelot Ndongmo
Imani’s Moon by JaNay Brown-Wood
I Am Perfectly Designed by Karamo and Jason “Rachel” Brown
All Because You Matter by MSS Tami Charles
Nana Akua Goes to School by Tricia Elam Walker
The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles
Marcus Makes a Movie by Kevin Hart
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed
New Kid by Jerry Craft
President of the Whole Fifth Grade by Sherri Winston
Twins by Varian Johnson
The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake
What is your vision for the store’s future?
We want to be a valued source of education and knowledge about the cultural richness, historical contributions, and significance of Africa and African people to the world.
What do you love most about being independent booksellers?
We love being able to do what we love organically, creatively, and authentically in service of our clients and our community. Being an independent bookseller, we get to see the transformational power of reading up close, source and stock unique products that are relevant to our clients, and develop a deeper bond with the Knowledge Bookstore community. It is very fulfilling.