By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Bedtime at the Valentine household means story time. Almost every night, Ashley Valentine and her husband read to their son from a children’s graphic novel series known as Akissi. The series, written by Marguerite Abouet and Mathieu Sapin, takes place on the Ivory Coast and depicts the misadventures of Akissi, a young Black female protagonist.
Each book contains 10 to 12 short stories, Valentine said, and feature an array of characters from Akissi herself to her family, friends, neighbors and teachers. It’s a fun series, that’s easy to read and enjoyable for kids, Valentine said.
When it comes to books, specifically children’s book or books featuring BIPOC protagonists, Valentine knows a thing or two. After all, she is the owner of the soon to be opened Rooted MKE, 5312 W. Vliet St., a bookstore that doubles as a tutoring space.
Owning a bookstore has long been a dream of Valentine’s, but she didn’t give it much thought until graduate school.
At the time, Valentine was a teacher at Milwaukee Public Schools and enrolled in a MPS program that allowed her to teach during the day and obtain her teaching degree at night. Valentine chose to pursue a master’s in reading and special education.
But then, she changed her mind about teaching.
“I really appreciated the art of teaching and supporting students to meet their academic goals and discover who they are as a person and what contributions they want to make to society,” she said. “But I didn’t like doing it through the formal public-school structure.”
Valentine felt that the students often needed more than she could offer.
“I felt like I could be doing a better job meeting students’ needs if it did it outside of the classroom and within the community,” she explained.
She spoke with her advisor who challenged to examine what literacy looked like in the community. That challenge became the center of Valentine’s thesis and through research, she looked at how children engaged with books beyond school.
After grad school, she attended a weeklong workshop by Paz & Associates, that offers a crash course in opening a bookstore. While it was an intense week, the workshop only fueled Valentine’s passion for her idea.
“I left feeling affirmed,” she said. “This is what I want to do. This is me being able to provide kids with books.”
As a teacher, Valentine often sought out books that featured Black and brown protagonists.
“If I’m providing a literacy space for kids and centering kids and providing them with tool kits and things that they can have at home or in their community that support them through literacy, then I need to offer books that showcase Black and brown characters in a wide range of ways and in a wide range of stories,” she said.
During the workshop, Valentine learned that most independent bookstores offer more than just books. A bookstore that just sells books doesn’t make enough, she explained. While some bookstores include a wine bar or café, Valentine knew her store would be kid focused. So, she chose to incorporate tutoring as her bonus service.
It made sense, she said. As a teacher she knew the statistics regarding urban children and reading levels, but she also knew she had skills to offer a solution.
“If I’m going to be selling books, I need to make sure that kids are fully equipped to be able to read and enjoy the story,” she said.
Already she’s had parents reaching out to sign their children up for tutoring.
So far, the biggest challenge Valentine has faced has been funding. While she came into the project with $40,000 saved, costs for renovations, inventory, permits, inspections and more soon added up.
Although her business was considered too young to get traditional loans from the bank, Valentine persevered. She launched an Indiegogo campaign and pitched to Fund Milwaukee and other online platforms. Eventually, the Hmong Chamber of Commerce helped her secure additional funding.
“I had to piece together several smaller loans or grants or investments in order to make the project work,” she said.
It was frustrating, she said, but it also forced her to think about the why behind the project. And the answer was simple: she was doing this for her community.
The name itself is in part due to the community. Rooted is in reference to Valentine’s own history, and a reminder to kids to own their roots. MKE is Valentine acknowledging that she is proud of where she’s from while still recognizing the challenges that exist in Milwaukee for Black people.
“I wanted kids to have a strong sense of identity as a Black and brown child when they visited the place,” she said. “I wanted it to tell a story about being grounded and being nurtured and being celebrated.”
Aside from children’s books, the bookstore will offer young adult books. The soft opening will take place on Wednesday, March 1 and the grand opening is set for Saturday, March 12. And in her bookstore, no one will have to go far to find the section of book featuring Black and brown people – it’ll encompass the whole store.
“I am most looking forward to seeing kids come into the store and get really excited to not have to look all over the place to find a book that has brown people in it,” she said. “Everywhere you look there’s going to be a Black or brown character.”