Nestled in the Oakhurst neighborhood of Decatur, Ga. lies a quaint children’s bookshop. A rainbow of shiny book covers illuminate the front window of the compact shop, creating a stark contrast with the dingy dive bars that populate much of the rest of the street. Beside the shop’s turquoise-outlined front door is a chalkboard sign in pastel block lettering that welcomes patrons to “the cutest little neighborhood bookshop.”
Bunnie Hilliard is the owner and founder of Black-owned, women-run Brave and Kind Bookshop, a children’s book store specializing in diverse and inclusive children books. Hilliard sports thickly-framed tortoiseshell glasses, a wide smile outlined in bright pink lipstick and a sweater with bunnies on it — to match her name, of course.
When stepping inside the bookshop, customers are transported into a world of magic and color. Books are everywhere. They’re shelved, stacked, binned and displayed in every cranny of the store. Special displays are granted to educational books about inclusion. A special collection of books sits atop a packed bookcase, with titles including “A Kids Book About Being Transgender,” “A Kids Book About Anti-Asian Hate,” “A Kids Book About White Privilege” and more.
A black curtain separates the sea of books from a back-office area. Hilliard gladly leads me behind the scenes, where multiple desks are cluttered with scattered papers and binders. She sits down on a tattered couch, melting into the cushion with ease, and shares her story as if catching up with a longtime friend.
“We like to coin ourselves as having a beautiful, intentional collection of diverse and inclusive kids’ stories,” Hilliard said.
Hilliard founded Brave and Kind Bookshop in 2018, but the idea had been brewing since she was pregnant with her now-teenage daughter. She said that she had a hard time finding books with Black and brown main characters that were not centered around history or slavery.
“History is a very important part of sharing our stories, but looking for books for my kids that resonated with our family, and that we just enjoyed reading every day,” Hilliard said. “That was the beginning of the seeds of thinking that this was something that was missing.”
After graduating from Florida A&M University with a business degree in 2000, Hilliard came to Atlanta, where she first attended Clark Atlanta University for an MBA in marketing, then worked in banking and stayed home for a while after having kids. In 2016, she was ready to start the next chapter of her life. She asked herself what she would do if she knew she couldn’t fail, leading to the creation of Brave and Kind Bookshop.
“I wanted to do something that felt brave and kind for myself, that I felt like would leave a legacy on our community,” Hilliard said. “And I thought that championing these stories and prioritizing these stories would leave a legacy that we could all be proud of.”
In the summer of 2018, Hilliard launched a crowdfunding campaign “as a sort of litmus test” to see if the community was interested in her idea. She said she was met with an overwhelming amount of support and donations from family, friends, friends of friends and complete strangers. The bookshop officially opened in September 2018.
Bringing the vision to life was a community DIY project. Hilliard knew that her budget was tight starting out, so she recruited her friends and family to help her decorate the store and bring the space to life.
“I have photos of some of my friends with their little paint brushes painting in the letters,” Hilliard said. “We placed some orders and I placed that minimum stock inventory purchase and we opened the doors and it’s grown so much.”
The bookstore started with around 200 different titles. Now, Hilliard said that number is around 6,000. Selecting books to fill the shelves was a challenge, given the restrictions of the store being so small.
Hilliard sprung up from her seat and trotted over to the bulletin board hanging over her chaotic, colorful desk. She ran her finger over the board and landed on a Post-it note with a list of qualifications scribbled on it.
Hilliard rattled off, “Is it a good story? Is it diverse? Does it have diverse characters? Will the kids learn something? Does it provide mirrors, windows and doors?”
She explained that a story provides mirrors if the readers can see themselves in the story, it provides windows if it transports readers into someone else’s perspective and life experience and it provides sliding doors if it brings readers into a fantastical world, but also allows them to exit the sliding door and apply to the story to reality.
Hilliard said that during the pandemic it became more of a challenge to maintain a thoughtfully-curated collection, due to the pressure that came with being a Black-owned business during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Going through the pandemic and getting just some of the additional exposure that we did as a Black-owned store during that time, I felt a little inclined to be more to more people,” Hilliard said. “But, we talk all the time about making sure that we still feel thoughtfully curated. And so, we’re sloughing off some of the older titles and retiring some of those things because I want it to always feel like a very special and an intentional collection.”
Like the rest of the world, Brave and Kind Bookshop closed their doors on March 13, 2020 and survived off of websales. Despite the worldwide lockdown, the store gained a lot of traction during the Black Lives Matter movement when celebrities and public figures started sharing Black-owned businesses.
Although the store itself is small, Brave and Kind Bookshop’s outreach is vast. Hilliard hopes to eventually open a second location in Atlanta, and to continue expanding her reach across Atlanta, as well as create a nonprofit branch of Brave and Kind to be able to receive grants to serve those who have less access to books. In the meantime, the store is broadening their impact through hosting a variety of events, including school visits and book fairs.
“One of the things I really enjoy most is doing school visits and bringing picture book authors to schools and have students get a personal storytime and to hear all about the books and get to ask the author about their creative process,” Hilliard said. “And to just kind of see that sparkle in their eyes as they’re being read this really fun, funny, beautiful story.”
The bookstore also hosts author visits and readings and supplemental interactive activities in the bookshop. However, for the events where the crowd outgrows the store, Hilliard takes families across the street to Decatur High School, a partner of Brave and Kind that allows them to use their spaces.
Hosting these author events is one of Hilliard’s favorite parts of owning Brave and Kind Bookshop, she said.
“It feels kind of like a full circle of what I was trying to accomplish,” Hilliard said. “To kind of see it through to fruition, to see this author of color come to this audience and share their story in a meaningful way, and to see the looks on people’s faces when they’re talking about it, and that it really matters to them. It feels like we’re doing something important.”
Jordyn Libow (she/her) (25C) is from Greenwich, CT, and is majoring in English & creative writing and minoring in business. Outside of the Wheel, she serves as Public Relations Chair of Liberation Through Education at Emory, and is on the Outreach Committee for Emory's Atlanta Pediatric Cancer Outreach Club. In her free time, you can find her going on Lullwater walks, singing karaoke with friends, writing poetry, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.