Olaronke Akinmowo considers herself a "book fairy," an accurate title for someone who can turn 100 books into a collection of more than 5,000 in just eight years.
She's the creator of The Free Black Women’s Library, a new free library in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, which also serves as a social art project, a reading room, a co-working space and a community gathering center. The library "celebrates the brilliance, diversity and imagination of Black women and Black non-binary authors." All 5,000 books in the library's collection are written by Black women and non-binary authors.
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Here's how it works: Anybody can visit the space to read, work or hang out. If you want to take a book home, simply bring a book written by a Black woman or Black non-binary author, and you can trade. Whether you decide to bring the book back after you're done reading or keep it for your collection is up to you.
"Books have always been a treasure to me. I've always loved going to the library. I feel like the library is one of the most valid, important cultural institutions in society. It's really part of what I think shapes a community," Akinmowo tells Time Out while standing next to the library's book shelves. "I've come to understand that not everybody has access, so I felt really inspired."
She wanted to provide people with the same feeling she remembers as a little kid visiting the library, a place where she felt calm, centered, inspired, educated and adventurous. She remembers feeling "these portals in my brain just kind of open up" when she read at the library, and she wants to gift that transcendent sensation to all.
The library is one of the most valid, important cultural institutions in society.
The library's books include iconic feminist texts, cookbooks, memoirs, novels, kids' books and everything in between. Akinmowo, an artist and cultural worker, began this passion project in 2015 as a traveling library visiting cities like Boston, Baltimore and Philadelphia. As the collection grew and she felt inspired by burgeoning mutual aid projects, she started looking for a permanent space in her beloved hometown of Bed-Stuy. She realized the library could fill a need for people who felt isolated or lonely as the pandemic wanes.
"It just seemed like there was like a really deep need for safe, intimate spaces where people could just really could feel affirmed in their humanity and connect to other folks," she says.
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After raising money, she opened The Free Black Women’s Library at 226 Marcus Garvey Boulevard in August 2022. It's currently open four days per week (Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday) with wireless internet for anybody who wants to come by to read or work. The library has also hosts a book club, art shows and workshops on topics like writing, drawing, poetry, painting and sewing. All are welcome.
"We want it to be a very inclusive space, a very accessible space, and a space where people can gather and feel like they can be themselves and you don't have to be an academic or scholar or some type of fancy professional," she explains.
We want it to be a very inclusive space, a very accessible space, and a space where people can gather and feel like they can be themselves.
As Akinmowo's collection has grown, so too has her knowledge of readers' interests. She offers tailored recommendations, from romance to sci-fi to young adult books for teens.
"Representation is such a problem, especially for Black children and children of color who love books," she says. "They want to read books with characters they can relate to, with characters that feel like them, that talk like them, that are going through similar stuff. And they're not getting that in the English classroom."
The Free Black Women's Library has plenty of options for young readers and even a dedicated area for children's storytime.
The project has become even more important in an era of rampant book bans across America.
"When I started this project, part of my goal was to really center and amplify and celebrate Black women writers and the massive diversity that's available. But now flash forward to 2023, it's just kind of wild how a lot of the voices that I've been centering and celebrating with the community for eight years now are being banned and considered contraband in certain parts of the country," she says. "It feels very dystopian."
As an inspiration, Akinmowo maintains a wall of photographs of her "muses or spirit guides," including Ida B. Wells, Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, Octavia Butler, June Jordan, Zora Neale Hurston and more. She also highlights Black librarians who integrated book shelving systems.
"Having access to books in this way is something that was once considered for a very specific race, gender and class," she says. "You had Black librarians who broke into the field and established places like this in the communities."
She also maintains an impressive special collection of books which cannot be traded, including autographed copies and limited editions.
With a collection of 5,000 books, there's still room to grown. Akinmowo hopes to add more books by LGBTQ+ authors and more books from international Black women. Donations of books or funds are welcome.
10 book recommendations from The Free Black Women’s Library
We asked the book fairy to recommend some books for readers, and here are a few of her suggestions. If you're looking to purchase any of these books, here's a list of Black-owned bookstores.
1. Thick: And Other Essays by Tressie McMillan Cottom
2. Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery by bell hooks
3. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
5. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
6. Assata: An Autobiography by Assata Shakur
7. Dust Tracks on a Road: A Memoir by Zora Neale Hurston
8. Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo by Ntozake Shange
9. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
10. So Long a Letter by Mariama Bâ