When you walk into the newly reopened LEMS Cultural Center and Bookstore for Life Enrichment on Rainier Avenue in Columbia City, the first thing you’re likely to see is an altar on the wall facing the entrance.
In front of a stately antique kneeling pad is a table with some incense and a big photograph of LEMS’ former owner, Vickie Williams, that ran in The Seattle Times when she passed away four years ago.
By all accounts, Williams was a remarkable woman, and when she gave up her teaching career to take over operation of LEMS — then a Christian bookstore, and quite possibly the only Black-owned bookstore in the Pacific Northwest at the time — from her mother and aunt, the store became the embodiment of her life’s work. (At different times in its history, “LEMS” has stood for “life enrichment,” and “Learning, Education, Material and Software.”) Several awards commemorating Williams’ exceptional life decorate the shrine, including an award for outstanding allyship with the LGBTQ+ community and a plaque in the shape of a crucifix heralding Williams as a “community custodian.” (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.)
LEMS closed its doors shortly after Williams passed in 2017, and it appeared as though the two decades she invested in the shop would fade into Seattle history. But with the help of Beacon Hill cultural center Estelita’s Library, Williams’ godson Hassan Messiah, with her granddaughter Tylicia Messiah (who is Hassan’s niece), hosted a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2019 to reestablish LEMS for a new generation. The shop reopened to COVID-limited browsing three days a week in December, and in March, it will switch to a five-day-per-week schedule — open Monday, Tuesday and Friday from noon to 6 p.m. and on weekends from noon to 4 p.m.
Tylicia Messiah, an educator who manages the store’s day-to-day operations, grew up in the shop. The first time she ever got onstage with a guitar and sang to a crowd of people was at one of LEMS’ legendary Kwanzaa celebrations.
LEMS “started as a safe space for the African diaspora to purchase books about them, written by people like them, rather than a narrative written by somebody else,” Tylicia Messiah says. Williams “was very passionate about putting her life experiences together in one store. So for her, what that looked like was books about culture and heritage, and giving people of the African diaspora — or anybody vulnerable to societal discrimination — a safe space.”
While books were always central to the LEMS experience, the shop quickly grew into something more: Tylicia Messiah believes that LEMS is “the longest-standing cultural hub and community gathering space in South Seattle.” LEMS has been a home for educational workshops on cross-cultural awareness, charity drives, readings and concerts, gallery shows for artists, discussion panels on current events, and much more.
Tylicia and Hassan Messiah spent much of the last year cleaning and organizing, and LEMS is very much still a work in progress.
The cavernous shop carries over 1,000 used titles on temporary shelves arranged around the space, as well as locally produced arts and crafts. LEMS doesn’t currently have a website or even a phone number, but the seeds are being planted for it to grow back into the bookstore it once was — already, Tylicia is partnering with local elementary schools to order Black history books for students, and the front of the store features a growing selection of contemporary titles on Black history, anti-racism and Black excellence.
And plans to reinvigorate the shop’s community involvement are underway. Hassan Messiah hopes to build a recording studio in the back of the space, as well as a stage area for comedy shows, musical performances and community gatherings. Before the pandemic, the space could comfortably fit 200 people, so Hassan believes LEMS has enough room for a number of different business models to coexist — including a new venture called Rainier Avenue Clothing Company, which will open in the space at the end of March. Still, Hassan Messiah insists that books are top priority — “no matter what, it’s always going to be a bookstore,” he says.
With the pandemic limiting in-person gatherings, Tylicia Messiah is slowly working to rebuild LEMS’ role as a community hub. The store recently partnered with the Abundance of Hope Center to host a clothing drive. “I’m realizing what my grandma was putting together,” she said. “When you’re doing stuff for the community, it’s a different kind of feeling than when you’re just hanging out with friends. You feel really close to these people.”
And as they work to rebuild family out of the LEMS community, the community is rooting for Hassan and Tylicia Messiah to succeed: a volunteer sign-up sheet by the door is full of names and phone numbers of people who want to contribute to the future of LEMS. Hassan Messiah says sound and video engineers, visual artists and other creative types are especially welcome to come make their mark on the shop.
Tylicia Messiah has now walked in her grandmother’s footsteps at LEMS for three months, and she’ll readily admit that the responsibility is daunting. But for many years, she’s been yearning for this role. “Working towards community empowerment, and empowerment of my people, reminds me a lot of when I was living in Africa,” she says. In 2014, during a yearlong visit to Kenya, she felt a kinship with the vibrant music, culture and history that she found there. When she returned to Seattle, Tylicia Messiah felt like she had lost some part of herself: “I had reverse culture shock. It was hard. I was just out here in the cold city by myself.”
With LEMS, Tylicia feels that spirit has been rekindled. “I found something I’m really passionate about, something that I can actually see myself doing for the rest of my life,” she says. When a customer asks if the store would be closed if a threatened snowstorm materializes (as it did in February), Tylicia Messiah scoffs at the idea of not showing up: “Rain or shine, baby, I’m making it to LEMS,” she said, laughing.
What are LEMS customers reading?
As she works on rebuilding the stock at LEMS Cultural Center and Bookstore for Life Enrichment, Tylicia Messiah has been partnering with local schools and organizations to promote books “that are about people of color, written by people of color.”
Messiah’s research for appropriate books for elementary school students uncovered a pair of kid-friendly workbooks that she now carries at LEMS for $4.99 apiece: “Let’s Learn About African-American Inventors” by Carrie Zelazowski and “101 African-American Achievements That Shaped America” by Chrisanne Beckner. The profusely illustrated booklets guide young readers through important American figures and events that often get sidelined on syllabuses created by white instructors.
“Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America,” the latest bestseller from Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo, has been so popular that LEMS has temporarily sold every copy of the book. But while they wait for it to be restocked, Tylicia Messiah encourages LEMS customers to read Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist” and its accompanying volume, “Workbook For How To Be An Antiracist,” which helps adult readers work their way through the idea that to simply disavow racism isn’t enough. And for aspiring readers who are too young for any of these recommendations, Messiah has the perfect option: “Antiracist Baby,” a colorful board book written by Kendi and illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky that reminds children, “Antiracist Baby is always learning, changing, and growing / Antiracist Baby stays curious about all people and isn’t all-knowing.”