We Are LIT: A cultural experience through books in downtown Grand Rapids

We Are LIT, a micro-bookshop in Grand Rapids, will celebrate six years of business next month. Established by Kendra R. McNeil as a result of wanting to bring the culture around books to West Michigan that she has witnessed in her many travels,

We Are LIT started as an online bookseller and now has its first physical location in downtown Grand Rapids.

“The transition from an online and pop-up bookseller to having three micro-bookshops has been amazing,” says McNeil, adding, “Through the physical spaces, I expanded We Are LIT’s contributions to the city’s culture by hosting social events, book signings and programs for adults and children.”

Photo courtesy of Stephen M. Smith

Representing McNeil’s love of books, reading and bookstores, We Are LIT has had a home inside the Grand Rapids African American Museum since 2022, offering a space for people to purchase from curated collections. McNeil has also launched additional shop locations inside The Arts Marketplace at Studio Park and inside the gift shop at the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum. Being physically present in the community, says McNeil, has proven to be the best method for reaching people.

McNeil says that she has networked with several booksellers operating under a non-traditional model, whether it be as a pop-up, mobile, or micro-bookshop, stating that Black-owned bookstores have made a remarkable comeback in the past ten years. 

“When I first conceptualized We Are LIT in 2016, there were less than 60 Black-owned bookstores in the United States. Since then, that number has been on the rise,” McNeil says. Still, she has not strayed away from the online and pop-up experience that laid the foundation for We Are LIT.

“I still prioritize doing pop-up events. It is always a pleasure to have facetime with the community and the opportunity to meet people who support my work, as well as introduce We Are LIT to people who are not familiar with the bookshop.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and the social unrest of 2020, says McNeil, brought people back to book reading as a pastime, creating a unique opportunity for booksellers to reconnect and engage as a community with books. McNeil adds that although many people returned to book reading during the shutdown, many also turned to books to help navigate the turbulent social and political landscape.

“These moments reinforced my belief that books and reading will always have a relevant place in our society. Books help us make sense of the world.”

With the recent release of Jada Pinkett Smith’s memoir, Worthy, We Are LIT had the pleasure of being recognized on Pinkett-Smith’s website as one of the few Black, preferred booksellers to support as part of HarperCollins Publishers marketing campaign. With this recognition, We Are LIT has gained new customers from as far as Okinawa, Japan and shows evidence of McNeil’s growth and journey as an entrepreneur.

“The advice that I would give entrepreneurs is to remember that slow and steady wins the race. Building a brand and a business is a journey. You have to condition yourself for a long haul,” says McNeil, who is also a lover of nature photography, bike riding and outdoor adventures.

McNeil credits the Grand Rapids community and its location partners — the Grand Rapids African American Museum, the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and The Arts Marketplace at Studio Park— for its support of We Are LIT, also offering these final words:

"I do not view myself merely as a bookseller but rather as a moderator in an ongoing dialogue among readers and my community … on everything from the current sociopolitical climate to how individuals can empower one another to live their best life. These, among others, are conversations created around books, and I love that as a bookseller; I help move these conversations forward."

Photo courtesy of Doug Sims Photography

Upcoming events of We Are LIT include:

Saturday, Oct. 28 — Frankenslime Storytime and Slime Making at The Arts Marketplace at Studio Park

Saturday, Nov. 25 —— Storytime and Photos with Santa during Small Business Saturday at Baxter Community Center

Sunday, Feb. 4 —Always Judge a Book by the Cover | Artist Talk with Octavia

For more information on We Are LIT, visit wearelitgr.com/

Shanika P. Carter is an author, freelance writer, editor, and adjunct communications instructor. She is also the Principal Consultant of The Write Flow & Vibe, LLC, offering writing, editing and content development services to a variety of clientele, including fellow authors and businesses. Shanika is the author of the book To Lead or Not to Lead, which was released in 2019.
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