She was working for Kolehouse Strategies, a political consulting firm, when the pandemic hit and her job was terminated.
“I was suddenly unemployed. I was feeling very deflated and unfulfilled,” she said. “The pandemic gave me the courage to do something I probably never would have done. I’m usually really pragmatic, but COVID showed me nothing is certain. I said to my partner, ‘I think what I want to do is open a bookstore.’ It’s what I wanted to do. I want to leave my mark on the community.”
“As a Flint native, creating a business here is really important to me. A lot of time, people my age leave,” said Otis, who is 29.
A friend told her there was a vacant storefront available for rent in an historic building that had once been a bookstore named Pages. Someone had recently rented the space and was going to open a juice bar and sandwich shop, but things came to a halt and the shop never opened.
Though she says, “I’m the kind of person when I decide to do something, I start doing it immediately,” and while she moved quickly to get her name on a lease in July, the pandemic delayed the store opening.
Finally, on Sept. 8, she held her grand opening of the Comma Bookstore & Social Hub, a store at the south end of Buckham Alley and W. Second Street, half a block from the main downtown drag of Saginaw Street. Buckham is a popular gathering spot, with retailers, outdoor dining and drinking and an annual festival.
The delay allowed her and her partner, Dorian Jackson, to build in some bookcases and counters.
It also allowed her to do a GoFundMe campaign to augment her savings, which far exceeded her imagination.
“I thought I might get $800 and ended up getting more than $11,000,” she said. “People still continue to donate to my GoFundMe page. If not for them, I wouldn’t be open.”
Otis hired her first employee soon after opening. “Business has been surprisingly good. I can’t complain. And people have been buying online,” she said. Her website is commabookstore.com.
The store has a focus on books by Muslims, African Americans and Latinos, though on a recent visit, “Too Much and Never Enough,” a memoir by Mary Trump about her uncle, Donald Trump, was on prominent display.
Paintings and other artworks by local artists adorn the walls and shelves. Locally made jewelry is for sale, as are grooming products made by Jackson’s company, Natroil Grooming Co.; eyeglasses recycled from plastic water bottles distributed around Flint, made by Genusee, a for-profit startup that is housed in the nearby Ferris Wheel Building incubator and has gained national attention and financing from wealthy investors from Silicon Valley to New York (see related story, Page XX); and Flint-themed shirts and hats.
Otis had planned to hold various events at the store, but COVID-19 put a damper on that. She did manage to hold two socially distanced tribute nights when actor Chadwick Boseman died, using a projector to show the movie “Black Panther” on a big screen.
And she has begun a kids’ book club, with the first group reading in October. She has invited community organizers to hold events there, and visitors who care to enjoy a game of chess or two will find a table waiting for them.
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