Hello Pittsburgh - Hello 2021….
Based on my research about how to build a business and connect and grow an online community, I’m taking a leap of faith and sharing some of who I am and how my dream of a diverse and inclusive children’s bookstore is coming to fruition here in the Steel City in 2021. Three years after the initial idea resulted in registering Stories Like Me as a woman-owned LLC, here I am, still in a “pre-launch” phase due to life’s twists and turns. I thought I’d share a little about how I got here, so we can continue to converse with one another along the journey of ensuring that every child can see themselves in a story.
My purpose here is to be real, and show courage.
Content Warning: We have mental health, elder care, “grey” divorce, and loss ahead. AND celebrations, inflatable pools, awesome new packing boxes, and a small-business only Christmas!
It’s January 11th 2021 and for the first time in a long time I’m allowing myself to hope and dream. My story is not unique – my losses, not more serious than anyone else's – but they are mine and my first step to moving forward with my dreams is to own them.
So here I am.
Since I launched Stories Like Me as a DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) pop-up bookstore in Fairfax VA in 2018, the circumstances of my dream have been challenged, putting on hold my goals, dreams and visions for a better future.
I attend an intensive DEI training (Nov 2017) for my day job. Learning things about myself and my privilege that I couldn’t unlearn, I determine in early 2018 to take my new-found knowledge and my love of bookstores and create my dream. After calling my daughters at their respective colleges, I registered the business and we were off, even getting featured in an industry publication, Shelf Awareness.
The realization from my elder parents that they could no longer live in their home, but needed a more scaffolded environment. A somewhat frantic phone call, after which follows moving them to Scotland from France, coinciding with the deeper onset of my Mum’s mental illness. A cross-continental move, giving up the beloved dog with an angel of a friend and neighbor, all took their toll. After spending 10 days building a bed (164 screws!) and a couch, and figuring out how to get missing prescriptions, I thought we’d be set for a few years...
It's wet and rainy and we host our first pop-up! Working with Cameron’s Coffee & Chocolates – which makes the most delicious treats and employs people with intellectual disabilities – we enjoy our first foray into bookselling. Inspired by the response, but forsaken by the weather we hold just one more this holiday season.
December 2018: Next came “The Intervention”
Struggling to balance family life, parents, a full time job, and my new dream, I am fraying… the girls could see it. My now-ex-husband broached it: “basically you’re nicer when you’re on Xanax” was what I was told. This is the week before Christmas 2018.
After responding with resistance and anger, I seek help and have come to see that this moment became the beginning of the rest of my life…
Part of our mission is providing books to those who might not otherwise have access in the community, and through generous donations in person and online, we gifted books to students identified in need by Britepaths a local organization. A heartwarming visit in January to Lynnbrook elementary schools allows me to deliver our books and share the excitement with this delightful school.
Continuing the dream, we send packages across the US in honor of Multicultural Children’s Book Day, donating diverse books to classrooms and teachers who request them.
An emergency trip to Scotland results in the admittance of my Mum to a psychiatric hospital. With deepest gratitude to the Doctors and healthcare workers for her care, then followed a time of my Dad taking the bus, carrying her laundry back and forth as they tried to stabilize her increasing delusions and paranoia. She never did come back or come back home, moving instead to a dementia nursing unit on the same campus as their lovely flat.
We need to talk more about mental health, mental illness and wellbeing... It is a devastating journey.
Now follows May, when my husband of 28 years informs me he wants a divorce. I’m just not the person he wants to spend any more time with… Oooofff...
Becoming Single… a journey of moving, examining, walking, breathing, finding out how to manage the conflicting emotions of all involved. At this point I put the bookstore to bed.
I contemplate donating all of the books I had safely tucked in boxes ready for my next pop up.
Everything goes quiet on my dreams.
Powered by sheer will, I paint the house ready for sale, navigate showings with 2 dogs that had to be removed every time, tolerate living under the same roof as my soon to be ex, and look for a new place to start my life over.
I choose Pittsburgh. By August 27th 2019 I am on the road, apartment secured, movers at the ready and I leave Fairfax, my life, my two dogs, and enter on the next path of my journey.
Still, my dream sleeps… Therapy in Pittsburgh begins.
Dottie enters my life – a rescue spaniel mix – just before the Thanksgiving holidays. Buying enough groceries for 10 days, not sure when I’ll be able to leave the apartment, I spend this time with her as we get to know each other. I have missed my dogs and cherish the challenges and joys of raising this new love. Love and hope start to show up in a black and white ball of cuddles and naughtiness.
I buy a small house, knowing that putting down these roots is the best thing for me, work super hard at my day job as Director of Project Management and Operations for a national education non-profit, and I navigate how to work things out with my two daughters, who are devastated by the divorce.
Divorce is finalized. Therapy continues.
My older daughter takes the time she needs from grad school to heal, and moves up to Pittsburgh to live with me.
We have the best move-in day EVER: My younger daughter and 4 of her college friends arrive to help clean, unpack, and celebrate the first night in my new house. 7 adults and one puppy eating Pizza from Angelo's and enjoying the chaos of laughter and tight quarters.
The Pandemic takes hold. Both girls need to move out of their dorms and storage units, and U-Haul becomes an app on my phone. With move-out in the dark and rain, it seems a sad and sorrowful exit to college for my younger one. My dream is still sleeping.
I am starting to emerge, whether it’s the longer days or the healing from therapy, and the fact that my girls - now both living with me - are making it through. I decide to contact the University of Pittsburgh Small Business Development Center and take a class. Maybe I could do this? Maybe now is the time to reinvent myself and Stories Like Me - here in my newly claimed home.
I start the logistics, registering the business in Pittsburgh, ensuring all my state licenses and registrations are in order, ready to establish myself in the area, meet local businesses, share dreams and goals, and support our children.
I find the best Boxes EVER! - such a creative and ingenious way I hope to be able to ship out orders. I buy boxes at the ready!
The pandemic rages and therapy continues.
I buy a kiddie pool!! YES - a large pink inflatable pool that fits perfectly in my postage stamp of a backyard. My daughters and I drink cocktails and read library books enjoying the cooling water, and laughing at our “beach vacation.”
We take a Saturday to take photos around the neighborhood, pictures of the sign and books selected, to share. We do our hair and make-up and bring changes of outfits and the dog! We’re ready, I think to start this social media commitment, to start to build up the awareness of our business.
As the pandemic continues - still working full time at my day job - I hold onto the hope that I can do something in 2020. Until I get the call.
Mum doesn’t have long. They say it’s the dementia now and I struggle with my dad and sister about how to handle this last transition for her given that I can’t travel because of quarantine, and no-one in the UK can attend services except for my dad and sister.
Mum becomes the person I remember in my memories and leaves this physical world peacefully, my dad and sister spending her last few hours together. I would not have wanted her to continue living as she was. I am afraid that my dad will die of a broken heart. He doesn’t. He is stronger than all of us, I think.
Grief and Pandemic and Elections…
I do not have the strength or energy to do much other than make it through the day. Dishes stay unwashed for days, the house is more untidy than ever, and I’m not interested in doing much of anything.
My dream sleeps… Therapy continues
I decide to give away books. Books to colleagues for their children, to neighbors for theirs, delivering some packages locally with our signature hand-made origami dragons. This is for me, really – a chance to dip a gentle toe back into the water and find a spark to keep my dream alive.
I focus on doing what I can to support other local small businesses, buying gift cards from Adda Bazaar and Bantha Tea in Garfield, and White Whale Bookstore in Bloomfield, buying creams and candles from Una Biologicals and Chez Lapin, as we focus on doing what we can to bring joy and stay centered. We spend our holiday taking walks, taking photos, and being as well as we can be.
We come full circle.
I have my dreams back. I’m scared, I’m worn out, and I’m ready.
I’m hoping that I get to talk with you soon - to share my vision of a space in which all children and their parents and guardians have access to enjoy the experiences of storytelling. Stories told by and for people who look like them, stories shared across cultures and histories. A space for LGBTQIA+ youth and families, a space where families with physical and mental disabilities can all feel welcome in our new home… Mobility-aid users will have the space and opportunity to visit, gather and celebrate seeing themselves in stores and stories too.
Location…. TBD… but I’ll keep you posted along the way.
What’s your dream for the next year?
If you liked this please share with your friends - and please know that I’m excited to work with you, our schools, our community and find the best way to celebrate kids everywhere.