Vickie Williams wanted to create a place where people came in to browse and left feeling part of something bigger than themselves.
You can find a great book at the LEMS Life Enrichment Bookstore on Rainier Avenue in Columbia City.
But really, the store — believed to be the only African American-owned bookstore in the Pacific Northwest — tells a story all its own. It is one of history and struggle, community and pride. And love. Lots of love.
That was owner Vickie Williams’ intent: To create a place where people come in to browse, and leave feeling part of something bigger than themselves.
“We had anything and everything,” said Aaliyah Messiah, Williams’ partner in business and life. “There’s so many things that happened in that store.”
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Williams, 65, died March 3 of heart failure at her home in Federal Way. Almost 1,000 people showed up to pay their respects at her funeral services last weekend.
Just last month, Williams was diagnosed with atrial fibrillation — an irregular heartbeat. She had been treated but went to sleep on March 2 and never woke up.
“Her heart just stopped in the night,” Messiah said.
Williams, who grew up in Indiana, moved to Seattle after graduating from Indiana State University. After stints as a Metro driver and substitute teacher, she opened the bookstore 21 years ago with her sister.
At first it was a Christian bookstore. Then it became Learning Educational Materials and Software, or LEMS.
But over time, Williams added children’s books, then the works of African-American authors like James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. She wanted the African-American community to learn its history and build a future.
The store moved around for years before it settled into its current, sixth location in 2008. It became a community hub, where kids came by after school to page through books, do homework and seek Williams’ counsel.
“She was always making sure that the young folks knew what to do when they were faced with racial trouble, so they wouldn’t end up in jail, or dead,” said friend Bridgette Hempstead. “She was a mentor to them.”
Small African churches held services at the store. A recovery group started weekly meetings, as did a group of former inmates working on job-development skills.
Williams kept supportive tabs on everyone.
“Vickie went to games, to the courts, to the hospital,” Messiah said. “If she thought that her presence could be of any support, she would be there.”
At Christmas, Williams hosted a Christmas and Kwanzaa holiday bazaar where black-owned businesses could set up tables and sell. And LEMS was the place where you could buy a doll with brown skin and curly hair.
Hempstead remembered the Christmas Eve when a man came into the store, helped out a bit, and then asked Williams for a ride. She found out he was homeless and took him home.
“He stayed the whole Christmas season,” Messiah said, filling in the rest. “You trusted and believed that it would be OK. We’re both very spiritual and you trust it and let it go. Or you don’t make that kind of gesture.”
Messiah used to joke that they should change the name of the store to “The Open Book.”
“People would always come in and tell Vickie their stories,” she said. “They’d come in for something and end up telling her everything. I would say, ‘Someone came in and told you that?’ and she would say, ‘I promise you.’ ”
Messiah is a case manager with a social-service agency that worked with people re-entering society after serving time.
She met Williams when she worked in the same office as a peer counselor.
“Best friends,” she said. “Best friends and confidantes to each other.”
When they weren’t at the store, they traveled to 30 states. Williams loved to drive.
“We’ve been so many places,” Messiah said, “that I am just going to sit down and reflect someday.”
For now, the store is closed while Messiah grieves and regroups. But it will reopen soon and continue what Williams started.
Friends have started a GoFundMe page to help pay for funeral and other expenses. It’s a little ironic, Messiah said, considering who Williams was.
“She loved what she was doing, she loved people and she was a giver,” Messiah said. “It was hard for her to receive.”