I was more interested in a community bookstore where people could walk to it and everybody would know each other and it would be a community-based, networking, family-oriented place. ~ Zelmon “Zee” Johnson
Here in our Stories of Grateful Living, we honor the voices of our community as we invite people to share their personal experiences with gratefulness. Join us in appreciating the explorations, reflections, and insights of fellow community members as we collectively learn what it means to live gratefully.
Zelmon “Zee” Johnson shared the story below in conversation with members of the Gratefulness Team.
I’ve always loved books. I found the library as my place of relaxation and escape. I always thought about having a bookstore, but I just kept talking about it. I guess I may have been talking about it for many years, and at age 16, my daughter said, “Why don’t you stop talking about it and do something.” Interesting what can motivate you. That’s when I set on the journey to fulfill that dream.
I wanted to have a bookstore that was non-commercial. I was more interested in a community bookstore where people could walk to it and everybody would know each other and it would be a community-based, networking, family-oriented place. That’s one of the reasons I chose the location I did. I wanted to be in the neighborhood of the customers I wanted to serve.
I truly believe there’s intervention, a higher intervention. The first time I looked at the abandoned building, the gentleman offered a price that I said was too much. About six months later, he called me, and he asked me if I was still interested in the building and that he was willing to meet my price. I had no idea if something had happened, or if he thought I was just a nice person. I really know God said this is for you. It was the right time. Earlier it hadn’t been. But the universe and God made it so that the opportunity came back around in six months without my manipulation or being involved.
After we bought the bookstore, the neighbors saw us standing there like deer in headlights. They came over and said, we will help you.
After we bought the bookstore, the neighbors saw us standing there like deer in headlights. They came over and said, we will help you. Plumbers, electricians, painters — they all helped to renovate the abandoned building/bookstore. I believe strongly in a bartering system, so in return for their services, I offered some bookkeeping and customer service help with my business background, so it worked out very well in that regard.
We’ve been there for 15 years — funny how time flies — and I never had a grand opening. My customers started to realize I was there and told other customers. With time, I saw with humbleness: I don’t own the bookstore; the community owns the bookstore. If I leave the light on after closing, and someone in the neighborhood drives by, they’ll call me. That’s what I mean by everyone owns it. I had a stand-alone coffee maker with a pot, and someone bought me a coffee maker with individual pods. They bought me a bell.
One thing I do know — and I’ll probably tear up when I say this — it’s ministry. It did not start out that way, but it just happened to be an environment where people tell me, I feel safe in here, I feel that I can say anything, I feel like I can walk around in a bookstore and nobody’s following me. I get customers who come in who are not looking for a book; they think they are, but they’re not — they’re there for a safe space or to debrief or to exhale or say, I just want 20 minutes of peace to sit here and regroup.
Apparently there’s an atmosphere, which is higher than me, that is allowing people to feel safe, to feel comfortable, and also to gain knowledge (it is a bookstore, so it’s ok to pick up a book).
About three years ago, I changed to [a career] in social work from human resources. And some customers come in to say, you know my daughter is out of hand, what do you think I should do? That’s being in a space where you feel ok asking somebody for help or even being able to say it or name it. So that part of the bookstore or environment or space is really noticeable. People say to me now, I know why people like to come in here. Apparently there’s an atmosphere, which is higher than me, that is allowing people to feel safe, to feel comfortable, and also to gain knowledge (it is a bookstore, so it’s ok to pick up a book).
At one time, maybe about ten years ago, I was going to close the bookstore because I was wondering if this was what I was supposed to do, and I didn’t have a consistent flow of customers. And the community would not let me close. The day that I said I’m going to close the bookstore, a customer came in and ordered 200 books, and I said, OK God, I got it, you don’t have to hit me over the head with a book. And from that point on I got to the business of doing what I’m supposed to do. It was also originally supposed to be a retirement job — I’ll just be the greeter — but it took off, and again that’s divine intervention. I was told, no, you can’t retire yet.
I have another full-time job, and I’m only open on weekends, but like I said, a higher being sustains me. With my new online store, I also now have customers who consistently order from beyond Massachusetts, from Maine to Kentucky.
I’m very happy about what the bookstore has become.
Questions for Reflection
What feelings/thoughts/questions surface for you in reading Zee’s story?
How does Zee’s story move you?
We invite you to share your reflections below.
We invite you to share a story about yourself or another person, reflecting on the question: “How has gratefulness shifted a moment, an experience, or a lifetime?”