Like a lot of people, Charles Hannah and Michelle Lewis took their business online last March. At first, it was slow going. “Nothing really happened for March, April, May,” Hannah says. That changed pretty quickly. “End of May, the protests blew up, a good friend of mine put a post in a Facebook group, and it just ignited like wildfire.”
Hannah and Lewis are the founders and owners of Third Eye Books and Gifts, a small shop that started out the back of their house and grew to a physical spot on SE 160th and Division by the end of 2019. It's also Portland’s only brick-and-mortar Black-owned bookstore. (Hannah is careful to make this distinction, citing several Black Portlanders who sell books online.) Since that initial flare-up last May, Hannah says he and Lewis have been busy filling orders every single day.
While Hannah and Lewis were abroad in Egypt last February, COVID started taking hold in the US, and their landlord was forced to sell their building just a few months after Third Eye opened. Now, after a successful $25,000 digital fundraiser, Third Eye will reopen at a new, two-story location on SE 33rd and Division on June 20. The grand opening will feature an appearance by Olympic gold medalist Tianna Bartoletta, who will sign copies of her new memoir Survive & Advance.
"Getting back to a brick and mortar has always been the deal," Hannah says. "I didn't wanna be like the quote-unquote ‘Big A’ just selling books online. That’s not me, that’s not my style.” At its old space, Third Eye hosted yoga classes, author events, and a slew of other community engagement activities. A few months ago, they partnered with Self Enhancement, Inc. to hand books out to families getting vaccinated at SEI’s clinic. Hannah sees a physical space—and a more centrally located one—as an opportunity to continue flexing the utility of a good old-fashioned bookstore. “It can be an anchor in the community for people who are looking for a spot to find information, to find coordination to find good books. Every community has a good bookstore; we want to be that for the Black community."
Third Eye started at Hannah and Lewis’s kitchen table, with a smattering of handmade T-shirts, earrings, and a box of "gently used" books. In 2018, they tabled at events, sold goods at churches, and scoured bookstores on trips across the country for quality finds. Last year, they appeared on Oprah Magazine’s Black-owned bookstore directory and snagged an Instagram follow from How to Be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi.
“Black people have been going to Powell's, Amazon, and not feeling served. Black people have been going to Barnes and Noble for the longest, and seeing that little three or four shelves rack, and that's always been for us," Hannah says. "But what we noticed, is that when we came on the scene, we're inspiring other bookstores to up their collection. I can go into some stores—won't name any names—and see some books that we have in our star that are sort of indie one-offs. That gets us excited."
As he's describing the benefits of Third Eye’s new location, Hannah gets approached on the street by a passerby, asking if he's reopening Reflections, a defunct Black-owned bookstore and coffee shop that used to anchor the corner of NE 6th and Killingsworth. When Hannah gives him the lowdown, the stranger says he'll come back. “We have our sign hanging [up], and it's like a magnet. ‘What's this? A bookstore? Black-owned bookstore?’" he says. “It's things like that—people walking up, being a resource to the community—[that's] my biggest triumph and my biggest goal."