BAMN Books Boosts Black Lit At Bloom

Lucy Gellman | February 21st, 2022

BAMN Books Boosts Black Lit At Bloom

Black History Month  |  Black-owned businesses  |  Books  |  Economic Development  |  Arts & Culture  |  Westville  |  Arts & Anti-racism  |  Elm City LIT Fest  |  BAMN Books

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Lucy Gellman Photos.

On a quiet stretch of Edgewood Avenue, Bloom was blooming fully into Black History Month. Copies of Chasing Me To My Grave, The Other Wes Moore and Just Mercy made fast friends with a bouquet of peach roses near the door. Laughter and poetry wove through the shelves, wrapping bell hooks and Honorée Fanonne Jeffers in their warmth. Trays of Afrotina’s steak sliders and pepper-stuffed empanadas made their way through the buzz of conversation. Even in the last hours of the weekend, light flooded in, as the sun itself wanted to take a look around.

Sunday afternoon, four generations of Black book lovers buzzed through the Edgewood Avenue boutique as part of “Lit with BAMN Books at Bloom,” a collaboration among Elm City Lit Fest, BAMN Books LLC, and the Westville-based business Bloom. Over two hours, dozens of people cycled through to browse BAMN’s collection, which includes new releases like The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois and Under The Udala Trees, timeless reads from James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, bell hooks and Angela Davis, and a little bit of everything in between. 

BAMN is the exquisite brainchild of bibliophile Nyzae James, a 25-year-old New Havener who started a mobile book selling business with a lifelong love of literature, a network of friends who have cars,  and a side of business acumen. The business’ name stands for “By Any Means Necessary,” an homage to both Malcolm X, who popularized the phrase in 1964, and to Nina Simone, who used it as a reference point when speaking on Blackness in the 1960s and 70s.

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Top: Elm City LIT Fest Founder IfeMichelle Gardin and BAMN Books Founder Nyzae James introduce the event. "I don't really want to talk about me," James said. "I think every title here is important. I think every title that they [these authors] write is important. I think giving back to the community is one of the greatest gifts I can provide." Bottom: James among the books.

The nod to the singer fits: Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” feels like it should be playing on repeat when James glides through a room, as she did Sunday in a camouflage jacket and wide-brimmed hat. When she spoke about reading, her eyes glowed above a black medical mask. While she hopes to soon secure a truck, she currently works with friends to deliver books around the city.

“I have a village of people I grew up with that are here today,” she said. “A close-knit community where we look out for each other, we celebrate each other, we stand up for each other. I always knew that I was going to do something for the community. I never knew what it was gonna look like, or that it would be this, but I knew it was gonna be something. Books have always been my go-to.”

Born and raised in New Haven, James fell in love with books when she was  a student at Wexler-Grant Community School under the now-historic leadership of Jeffie Frazier. While the whole school nurtured her—Frazier was firm but loving, she remembered—it was library media specialist Eleanor Willis who fed her insatiable appetite for books. At the time, Willis was one of a handful of teachers organizing literary events around the city, including a citywide read-in and “Book Bowl” designed to get students reading together. 

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Afrotina's Ohioma Odihirin. Sunday, he had help from Natalia Katz.

James’ gateway book—the one that lit a literary spark—was Sharon Flake's The Skin I'm In, a young adult novel that takes on colorism and anti-Blackness through the eyes of middle-school protagonist Maleeka Madison. It moved her profoundly because she could see herself in the text, she said Sunday. Words became her path to Black revolutionary thought, paradigm-shifting poetry, and authors and editors who made her think differently about the world around her. Even when she disagreed with authors, James said, she was grateful for their points of view.

She held onto that spark as she built her own personal lending library, inviting friends to borrow books when they visited her at home. A few years ago, she also started working for the bookseller Barnes & Noble. When Covid-19 hit New Haven in March 2020, a pandemic layoff turned into a business idea. 

"People were stuck in the house, and I'm like, 'Why don't I just go out on my own and supply books?'" she said. Her collection was (and remains) wide ranging and eclectic by design: new fiction, canonical Black thought, particularly from the last half of the last century, and activist voices have a place beside hard-to-find and little known reads that she hopes New Haveners will savor as deeply as she has. 

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Top: Bloom owner Alisha Crutchfield-McLean. Bottom: Tahj Galberth (at center) browses books after reading their spoken word piece. 

BAMN was officially born in May 2021, and has steadily grown since then. James works with the Tennessee-based wholesaler Ingram Content Group, which supplies hundreds of independent bookstores and booksellers across the country. She spreads the word largely through Instagram, which is where Elm City LIT Fest Founder IfeMichelle Gardin found her through friends’ posts a few months ago.

When she first saw friends posting about BAMN Books, Gardin’s heart leapt. For years, she has been building literary community in the city through Elm City LIT Fest, a festival, podcast, and event series that celebrates the breadth of Black authorship and the African diaspora. She sent James a direct message with her phone number.

"I was like, a mobile bookstore?!" Gardin recalled. "She delivers books? I gotta meet this woman."

Gardin, whose work directly supports authors across the African diaspora, brought the idea to Bloom founder Alisha Crutchfield-McLean, who cooked up a Black History Month event with the two. She didn’t need convincing, Crutchfield-McLean said Sunday—creating spaces for supportive, intentional community has always been “a part of my vision, my journey, my purpose.” Lately, she’s been re-reading her own journal entries from several years ago, in which Bloom was still a hazy, not-yet-named dream in its infancy. 

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Elm City LIT Fest Co-Coordinators Shamain (Sha) McAllister and Emalie Mayo.

Sunday, a steady stream of customers paged through novels and cradled armfuls of books to the register, then stayed for blood orange mocktails, aromatherapy and overdue conversation. Blooming succulents, rows of small, plastic-shielded cacti, and vases of pink and yellow daisies with sprigs of baby’s breath dotted the room. Charm bracelets in brass and and white gold glinted from beyond neat stacks of Shabaka’s Stone and Freedom Farmers.

Elm City LIT Fest co-coordinator Sha McAllister greeted old friends with hugs as The Fire Next Time and No Name in the Street looked on, Baldwin’s words echoing as succinctly as the day he wrote them. At one point, James’ grandmother and mother arrived holding lilies, and it seemed that a party could officially begin.

Just short of an hour into the event, James gathered over two dozen attendees for spoken word, the room falling suddenly to a hush. Poets Bobby Cooke, Jayla Welch and Tahj Galberth took the floor, their words soaring through the warm air. Even behind their masks, attendees gave small smiles and mods of encouragement, their snaps and mmmms making their way to the front. From the moment that Cooke proclaimed that “I am speaking!/And I feel good about what I am saying/Because I matter,” the audience was all ears.   

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Top: Spoken word performer Jayla Welch. Bottom: Baldwin among the succulents. 

Every poet brought something different to the makeshift stage, set against a mural of a blooming orange lily. Welch, who first described the very concept of her own freedom, burrowed deep into the soundscape of Black History, from “Martin/and a lot like scaring the government/Like/Free food programs” to Juneteenth joy and giants of the Harlem Renaissance, their great literary ghosts still whispering in New York City's streets.

In an act of lyricism that had the audience laughing, snapping, and applauding throughout the piece, poet Tahj Galberth explored dance and movement as a pathway to Black liberation.

“When Black people dance/We’re not just dancing/We’re surviving,” they read at one point. “Our lives/Depend/On the way our hips sway/The way our feet pound into the pavement/The way our bodies pop, lock, shake and rock.” Every letter rolled hard off their tongue and hung low for a moment before fading for the next.

Brushing their hand by a copy of bell hooks’ Salvation: Black People and Love, Galberth later called it “incredible” to have a space celebrating and supporting Black artists past and present. As a graduate of Wilbur Cross High School and the Educational Center of the Arts, they’ve been on their own path to poetry since watching  Tarishi “Midnight” Shuler perform at a school assembly several years ago. They named poets Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou among some of the most influential in their work.

“There’s not too many places that I perform that are completely Black-centered,” Galberth said. “It’s kind of surreal. I don’t know if I’ve been in a space so focused on Black literature.”

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Alisha Crutchfield-McLean: "I truly am grateful and overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude.”

As the afternoon wound down, James and Crutchfield-McLean bustled through the shop, returning it to an airy, quiet storefront ready for the next gathering. Crutchfield-McLean looked over the store, dusk now falling outside the large front windows. She beamed. 

“It feels exhilarating,” she said, pointing to the fact that the organizers represent three generations of Black women. “I am so honored to be able to share this space for gathering—and I'm just so happy to see my vision for Bloom blooming. It’s one thing to support other Black women. But it’s another to be aligned with them… I truly am grateful and overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude.”

Watch poetry from Sunday's event in the video above. Follow and support BAMN Books LLC on Facebook or Instagram. Learn more about Elm City LIT Fest on Facebook, Instagram, or at their website. Learn more about Bloom on Instagram or at their website