HARTFORD, Conn. — With Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and Eric Garner on her mind, Khamani Harrison found herself home in southern California in 2016. She was in Zahra's Books & Things in Inglewood and says that she let herself find a book. She discovered "Survival Strategies for Africans in America" by Anthony T. Browder.
That's when things changed for the young, Black, environmental engineer who had gone to her dream school, UConn. Harrison says that she'd found this wealth of knowledge and that she wanted to bring a similar experience back to Connecticut. "There's no connection like having read the same book as someone else. It doesn't matter your background, what's going on in your life, you can talk about the same book, the same concepts with anyone. I wanted to create an experience that captured that connectivity through the books."
By 2018, Harrison had saved up some money and bought several copies of a few important Black books that resonated with her. She set up a table at an event called Black Wall Street New Haven. She sold some books, made some personal connections, and hasn't looked back. She started selling books at festivals, marketplaces, open mics, and other events from Boston to New York City.
Later that year, Harrison launched a website for The Key Bookstore, selling books on Afrocentrism, spirituality, holistic healing, anti-racism, business and even children's titles. After George Floyd was killed in May, sales skyrocketed.
This past summer, Harrison was suddenly shipping 200-300 orders a day. She couldn't keep books like "How to be an Antiracist," "Stamped," or "White Fragility" in stock. The Key sold 2,000 copies of "White Fragility" alone. It was time for a storefront.
Jamal Vaught was working security at Hartford's NV Nightclub in Hartford late in 2018 when he noticed a book table set up. After midnight, among many people partying, Vaught spoke to Harrison and bought the same Browder book that sparked something in her. A few chance meetings later and Vaught now volunteers at The Key Bookstore, Harrison's passion project on Park Street.
Harrison says that shopping from The Key is a very Black experience. The tablecloths in the store, the embroidery on the Key merchandise, the website itself are all products of collaboration with other Black entrepreneurs.
Key Book Bars have become another way that Khamani has extended her store's reach. These book bars have become permanent fixtures in several Black-owned businesses across the state including 720 Wholistic Wellness Center in Waterbury, Cultured Studios in New London, and Fire and Spice in Hartford.
Still, the bulk of The Key's business is online. Their interactive online retail model has three different subscription plans that offer members discounts, free shipping and even Key merchandise. They even had a special membership deal for veterans on Veterans Day. The Key has partnered with local non-profits, home schooling groups, and even fraternities and sororities to make memberships available to organizations that have made bulk purchases.
And all of this is being done while giving readers the opportunity to support a local, Black-owned business instead of a behemoth like Amazon.
"I want to take us back in history to ancient Kemet, Egypt, Africa being the center of knowledge for the entire globe," says Harrison. "The Black community has something that the world can learn from."
Khamani returns to the idea of connecting people through knowledge and the written word. "The focus is on deep connection," she says. "The Key is about fostering relationships and connections. People want to be connected over things of substance."