KAYLA DRAKE | Reporter
When Jeffrey Blair does presentations at local area elementary schools, the first thing he does is take a selfie.
When he shows the group the picture he asks “What is the first thing you look for?”
Blair and his wife, Pamela, run EyeSeeMe Bookstore, the “biggest African American children’s bookstore,” according to its website.
The for-profit business recently expanded into a former Rent-A-Center off Olive Boulevard in University City, after being open for four years in another location a couple blocks down the road.
While raising their children, Jeffrey and Pamela were conscientious to find books that reflected African-American culture, but Jeffrey said it was difficult. Pamela even wrote two children’s books, “Abraham Story Book” and “The Story of Jacob.”
“You could see a spark inside of them when they could see themselves,” Jeffrey said.
About eight years ago, when the couple moved their family from New Jersey to St. Louis, they stopped homeschooling their four children and enrolled them in public school.
“They started to be pretty dissatisfied with what they were being fed,” Jeffrey said.
In the classroom African-American contributions to history were limited to slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, he said.
As their children graduated high school with honors and scholarships, with one advancing to medical school, parents and teachers asked the Blairs: “What’s your secret?”
Jeffrey said there wasn’t a secret, just to start with a foundation. After talking with educators and parents, the Blairs realized others had the same frustration of a lack of diverse children’s literature. There was a gap that needed to be filled. A status quo that needed to be changed.
Jeffrey left his attorney job four years ago and the couple launched EyeSeeMe. The name is in the vision: for children to see themselves, especially African-American children.
Like a seasoned teacher, Jeffrey links the selfie analogy back to a reality.
“When our children are going through the education system, if you don’t see yourself, you look for a little while, but you’re not really interested in that picture,” he said.
Jeffrey said that feeling lasts from kindergarten through high school for African-Americans.
“A lot of times when we see our children disconnecting from education, they’re not disconnecting from education, but this white-washing of it,” he said.
Brandy Fink, a librarian at North Kirkwood Middle School, said the first time she met the Blairs they showed her a TEDx talk on how children need books to be both mirrors and windows. That concept has become the guiding principle for her teaching, she said.
“I have 600 students, so I have every student in this school, and it’s my job that when they come into this space – they see themselves,” she said.
EyeSeeMe is a place full of stories, but it makes them as well.
Anthony Ross, a regular, said he believes EyeSeeMe is changing his daughter’s narrative.
Jeffrey said he believes the problem lies not only with education, but within the African-American community as well. Both need to focus on the development of minority children.
“A lot of the issues we see downstream in our communities stems from the early childhood literacy piece or education or ‘where do I fit in in the world?’” he said.
The store’s location is not far from what St. Lousians call the “Delmar Divide,” a street that separates rich, dominantly Caucasian neighborhoods, from poor, dominantly African American neighborhoods.
Jeffrey said the statistics can be manipulated to make St. Louis look diverse, but people are separated into pockets with little spaces for interaction.
“As a society we’re losing so much human capital and potential that could really benefit all of us, if we would invest in all of us,” he said.
After Ferguson, more Caucasian customers came to the store. Jeffrey said a common reason was they didn’t want their children to have “blinders on and have rosy colored glasses that think everything’s okay, but be exposed to diverse cultures.”
Jeffrey said he didn’t see switching from an attorney to a bookstore owner as a sacrifice but an investment.
EyeSeeMe hosts story times, book clubs and homeschooler groups. The store organizes book fairs and supports local authors. After the expansion, the Blairs started a cafe, open mic nights and classrooms for summer programming.
Their goal is to expand and open stores in every major city.
“My father-in-law used to always say when you go someplace you should leave it better than you found it.”