When a friend gifted Krystle Dandridge a stack of science fiction books for her birthday a few years ago, they never could have guessed they were planting seeds that would blossom into one of Richmond’s only Black-owned bookstores. Seeing herself reflected in a genre of books that rarely features highly melanated protagonists proved a revelation for Dandridge.
“When I opened my first fantasy novel that described the main character as having coily hair and skin as dark as midnight, it opened a whole new world to me,” she remembers. “So you can be Black and have magical powers and save the world, too?!”
That same perspective-expanding joy is exactly what she hopes her new bookstore, the Book Bar, will offer customers when it opens this February in Shockoe Slip. Assuming city permits are approved, Dandridge hopes to officially open on the fifth. Ahead of the grand opening, Dandridge is in talks with a local author to do a book signing and a reading; keep your eyes posted to her social media for an announcement coming soon. The decision to launch her brick-and-mortar at the beginning of Black History Month is no coincidence either. “Everything I do is intentional,” Dandridge says.
Visitors to her upcoming shop can expect a bookstore “that centers Black, indigenous, and other people-of-color authors as well as a bar that sells wine by the bottle with lots of tastings and author events.” Although Dandridge’s shop will, of course, welcome readers of all backgrounds, the emphasis on Blackness is her way of realizing a dream she never could have envisioned as a kid in a corner of New Jersey devoid of independent bookstores.
“Growing up, I don’t think I walked into any business where the owner looked like me,” she says. “Worked there? Yes. But owned it? No. Representation matters. I used to walk into any bookstore and it was difficult to find books by authors who look like me. It’s just not considered what is mainstream even though there are a lot of them out there. Our country is diverse, so I wanted to create a space where folks can find diverse reads.”
Beyond the books, Dandridge hopes to turn her shop into something of an ecosystem for Black-owned small businesses. The front of the store will serve as a dedicated space for rotating vendors to sell their wares. The rest of the Book Bar will offer customers a lounge style setting replete with relaxing R&B and neo soul as the soundtrack to their book searches.
Just because the Book Bar’s physical space won’t be open for another month doesn’t mean that Richmonders can’t already enjoy its offerings. The brand and the bookstore’s website launched on Juneteenth of last year. Curious customers can visit RVAbookbar.com and begin ordering straight to their doorstep.
Besides books, the Book Bar also offers a quarterly subscription box that includes one item to stimulate each of the senses. Each box always features a book, but what accompanies it can range from vodka cheesecake-flavored popcorn and bath bombs to knee socks and face scrubs. As a licensed therapist and mental health professional for 15 years, promoting self-care is second nature to Dandridge.
Another way she cares for her customers is via the Book Bar Book Club — a recently formed reading group with over 50 members that works through a new novel together each month. January’s choice for the club is “In Every Mirror She’s Black” by Lola Akinmade Åkerström. Later this month, the author is going to join in on the club’s meeting remotely from her home in Sweden. Each month Dandridge provides the club with a few options and lets them choose which book to tackle, but for her the goal is to pull people outside of their typical genre “because you will never know the full extent of what you like if you stay in just one lane.” For Dandridge, the Book Bar’s grand opening can’t come soon enough.
“There are campaigns across the country banning books right now, and a lot of the books being targeted are by Black authors,” she points out. “We all just want to be heard. Why is it that I have to open my own bookstore for there to be representation across the board? Why is that not just the norm?”