The Key Bookstore is an interactive bookstore experience curated on the pillars of Afrocentricity, spirituality, environmentalism, and entrepreneurship.

In 2018, Owner and Founder Khamani Harrison launched a website and created a mobile bookstore she brought to all types of events from festivals and pop-ups to open mic nights and poetry slams. The Key Bookstore opened a brick-and-mortar storefront at 1429 Park Street in Hartford in September 2020.

MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price met Khamani at the recent IDH UNWIND event and circled back to learn more about her entrepreneur journey.

NAN PRICE: Have you always been entrepreneurial or wanted to start a business?

KHAMANI HARRISON: No. I really had no cares for that. I wanted a career and everything.

NAN: What changed?

KHAMANI: With the social climate, I started reading more books. I was falling in love with books and falling in love with reading again. One of the books I read noted that to help out your community you should start a business or become a part of the economic ecosystem.

NAN: So, that sparked the idea?

KHAMANI: Right, but then I didn’t know what type of business I could start. I don’t like sales, so I thought about my skill set. I am a drummer and I am an engineer. But I didn’t want to have some sort of music company and I didn’t want my own engineering company.

And then I realized how by reading books and finishing them, you become a curator and someone who can recommend books. That’s where I started to see myself fitting in, letting my personality help sell books and getting more people reading—what better world than that?

NAN: How did you go from deciding to sell books to getting an LLC and finding a brick-and-mortar location?

KHAMANI: I’m the type of person who, if I’m going to figure out how to do something, I’m going figure it out. I knew people in the Black community who had a bookstore business and they had a business background, so I knew they could help me start my own store and connect with vendors. That was how I started.

NAN: Did you tap into any local resources?

KHAMANI: Before I started, I utilized them all. I attended free workshops at the University of Hartford Entrepreneurial Center and Women’s Business Center. I got connected with the Black Business Alliance as they were getting started. I also sought resources from the Women’s Business Development Council.

NAN: Early on, you were advised that, with access to the internet and mobile devices, the bookstore business model is declining. Were you deterred or were you committed to knowing there was a market?

KHAMANI: That’s a great question. I identified with myself first and foremost. I am a book lover and I knew there were pockets of book lovers everywhere. Many entrepreneurs and successful people are reading books. So, I didn’t see the concept of the bookstore model dying.

Starting out, I walked through my own journey. I went to a bookstore and then I searched for them online and couldn’t find them. So, I realized there are bookstores without websites. Many of the bookstores I visited had a presence at events with thousands of attendees. I knew I had to create that kind of presence too. But some of those same bookstores weren’t doing much on social media.

So, any model I looked at was missing a piece that I realized wouldn’t be that difficult or expensive—build a website, show up at events, create an online presence and it will help you sell books.

NAN: How are you building clientele?

KHAMANI: When people think about spending local, one of the first types of business they think of tends to be a local bookstore. The bookstore can be the knowledge hub of your whole community. It should be. They also become loyal return customers who recognize they can buy all their books from their local bookstore. The other option is corporate, which doesn’t tie back into the independent local thing.

Not only that, but I also position my bookstore with the social climate. Integrating search engine optimization and leveraging social media, the bookstore is well positioned for people looking for what I have or who I am, either being a Black-owned business or a Black bookstore. In 2020, when specific titles like White Fragility and How To Be An Antiracist went viral I was one of the curators of all those titles. So, I tagged them all together.

In terms of building clientele, partnerships have been important. I give credit to Kamora’s Cultural Corner, Urban Professional Network, and There’s Nothing Better, which have been huge partners.

NAN: Why Hartford?

KHAMANI: Hartford is very much an event-based place. You have to be in the know about what’s going on and get plugged into the community. If I can make my model work here, I can apply it everywhere else.

NAN: Is that the future goal, to have more bookstores?

KHAMANI: In a way. I’d like to create experiential hubs, like an interactive franchise where people can buy the model and make it work wherever they’re at. Ideally, they’ll all have interactive stations. So, when you walk in, there won’t just be a bunch of static books. Part of the store model is that the layout will constantly be changing, so there will always be something new to find and discover. I want it to be a very exploratory experience.

NAN: What’s your biggest lesson or your piece of advice to others who are starting their own business?

KHAMANI: My biggest realization has been to know how technology works and learn the language because technology will make or break a business—new, old, big money, no money.

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