Cetonia Weston-Roy has always wanted to open up a bookstore that would highlight Black authors and provide a space for readers to access them all in one place. Founder of the Niche Book Bar and a self-published author, Weston-Roy wanted book lovers to be able to discover Black authors beyond the first ten, familiar names that come up in a Google search. She knew that in order for readers to find lesser known, non-traditional authors, she would have to reach those readers in non-traditional ways. Out of necessity and curiosity, Weston-Roy created a pop-up book mobile in 2020 to bring the books she loved to the people, community and neighborhoods she loved. Now Niche Books has grown into a bookstore that will open in Milwaukee’s historic Bronzeville neighborhood in August of 2023.
Weston-Roy shares her challenges and opportunities of being a book lover, book author, and bookseller in this interview.
Can you describe the book mobile for someone who hasn’t seen it before?
It’s a used blue, three-wheel bike with yellow shelving. The back has storage where I can store the books that are then displayed on the shelves in the back.
Why start with a book mobile before an actual store?
We got incorporated as a business as soon as the pandemic rolled in, and it didn’t make sense to open a physical location. When you’re a pop-up entrepreneur, you can meet people where they’re at. I took the mobile to author pop ups, back-to-school picnics, block parties, farmers markets and parks. While attending each of these events, I was able to engage with community members and record data about who our target market is.
What is the significance of the location of the bookstore?
It’s located in a historically Black neighborhood called Bronzeville that was cropped over by freeways as the city began to develop. It’s close to downtown and residential. Before we chose this location, I would drive up and down Martin Luther King Drive, hoping to find a place for the bookstore. I had already spent time in the neighborhood hosting free storytimes at Carver Park. To me, Bronzeville is a rich history, a blueprint, a cautionary tale, and a legacy to carry on.
What are your hopes for the Niche Book Bar?
As a little girl, I used to get dropped off at Barnes and Noble and get a hot chocolate. I hope to offer an elevated experience like that for book lovers with a small wine menu, hence the “bar” portion. I hope to continue to grow, to do bigger events and have more books available. People can expect a calm inviting space filled with Black literature and red wine!
What will happen to the Book Mobile?
We’ll be hosting more free storytimes and treating it like a Little Free Library.
You’re an author as well. Can you tell us more about The Misadventures of Toni Macaroni series?
I have been thinking about writing a book since I graduated college. I had a burst of creative energy when I set out to start Niche Books and this book was a part of that. So far, I have self-published two books in the Toni Macaroni series. The books are about a quirky little girl with an overactive imagination that gets her in trouble. She is modeled after me and other Black girls who have been told they have a “smart mouth,” especially when they ask questions about the world.
Any advice for emerging writers?
Write, write and keep writing. Don’t underestimate the need for editing. Also, this quote that Stacey Abrams shared from her father – “Let other people tell you no, don’t tell yourself no,”.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in starting this business?
When I first started out, I thought that being an entrepreneur was a solo endeavor, but I have learned that you need a community to be an entrepreneur.
What groups or organizations are you affiliated with that help you do this work?
Many groups and individuals have helped us along the way. WWBIC, BizStarts, the Hmong Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, Brew City Match, the African American Chamber of Commerce of Wisconsin, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Spring Bank, the Milwaukee Economic Development Corporation, the MLK Business District, and so many Black-owned businesses like Coffee Makes You Black who helped me start with my first pop ups.
How can people who don’t live in Milwaukee support Niche Books?