Third Eye Books is the only brick and mortar owned bookstore in the state of Oregon.
“So we’re trying to create an atmosphere where people can come in and embrace their culture and feel good about being black,” said Charles Hannah, who runs the company with his wife, Michelle Lewis.
Search the room and you will find books on subjects ranging from cooking to fiction. The store is lovingly curated by Charles and especially Michelle, who says the store is doing important work in showing Black Portlanders the power of books. For them, they are more than just paper and words.
“These are tools for me,” says Lewis. “We have to expose our kids to the James Baldwins, the Zora Neale Hurstons and the Toni Morrisons. These writers have always challenged the status quo.”
Since opening in its current location nearly a year ago, Third Eye Books has received a wealth of support from Portland’s literary community, particularly from grassroots organizations like book clubs. Lewis is a member of a reading group for black women called Prose Before Bros, which is representative of this surge in enthusiasm among the city’s black women readers.
Nanea Woods founded the group in 2018 with one simple goal.
“I want to create spaces for people who look like me and don’t often see themselves in spaces like the literary world,” says Woods.
Prose Before Bros now has over 400 members. That rapid growth encouraged Woods to adapt and expand his concept into a full-fledged Black Book Festival, which debuts in Portland this week.
“It’s called the Freadom Festival and it’s a celebration of literacy and liberation. We have it during Juneteenth weekend,” says Woods.
The June 16 timing of the inaugural event, commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, carries strong symbolism for Woods. Black literacy was a particularly powerful tool in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and in the years following the American Civil War.
“Truly it is an event to recognize the importance that literacy and books have had in gaining the freedom of my black ancestors, the freedom of our black ancestors. Because at some point it was illegal for us to learn to read or to be able to read or to read,” explains Woods.
While a celebration of Black history takes center stage, the Freadom Festival also aims to promote community and highlight the work of contemporary Oregon writers such as Kesha Ajose-Fisher. Her book No God Like The Mother won the 2020 Ken Kesey Award For Fiction.
Ajose-Fisher recalls the feelings of loneliness and isolation she experienced when her family moved to the Portland area nearly two decades ago.
“I even joked that the only Black people I know are my children and if I wanted to see another Black adult I would have to look in the mirror,” says Ajose-Fisher. “And it wasn’t like there weren’t other black people in Oregon or [the] Portland area – it was just that we were so disconnected. We didn’t bond in a way I feel we can now.”
Ajose-Fisher says venues like Third Eye Books and book club Prose Before Bros are beginning to drive this change, but she hopes the Freadom Festival will be an even bigger catalyst.
“I’m so grateful for people who look like my kids — and people who don’t look like my kids — who can see what our community is like when we show up to tell our stories and share our stories,” says you .
Michelle Lewis of Third Eye Books, an official festival partner, believes there is strength in this community.
“It helps when you see someone reflecting you,” says Lewis.
“We have always been storytellers. We have always written our stories and shared them through our people. And we need to recognize that and remind our children and our community that there is a place for us in the literary world.”
The Freedom Festival will be held at Portland’s Peninsula Park on Saturday, June 18 from noon to 6 p.m.