The Key Bookstore’s Approach to Community-Building Through Reading and Technology

3 min read

Nick Cimillo ’26

Staff Writer

Of the various Black-owned businesses in the Hartford area, there is one hidden gem that might tend to evade peoples’ radars for one simple reason: it is entirely digital. Khamani Harrison, founder of The Key Bookstore, discusses the history of her business, the challenges she’s faced and the importance of the power of reading with today’s technology.

Harrison’s initial idea for the bookstore stemmed from the murders of Sandra Bland and Trayvon Martin in the early-mid 2010’s. “That was [some] of the most patriotic civil unrest and international unrest I’ve ever seen regarding Black lives,” she recalled. “And I was just coming out of college and… finding self, and I turned to books.” After reading many books from a Black-owned bookstore, she realized: “These books are already here… I had to [physically] go into a bookstore, whereas a lot of us are technology-driven.” Harrison understood how technology could be used to increase readers’ accessibility to books they previously did not know existed. “Your favorite bookstore — you have to go there; it’s somewhere far, maybe, or it’s only open so many hours… And so now you’re disconnected. So my idea was to rip the four walls off and make it omnipresent.”

The bookstore’s website features digital mediums such as e-books and audiobooks, as well as physical copies to be shipped directly to readers. And there is much more to it than that: The Key Bookstore also utilizes spatial technology in various ways. “For Black History Month, there’s a filter that we have on Instagram [that] randomizes a book, any [of which] is good to read for Black history.” There is even an entire digital storefront built with augmented reality technology that customers can access with their phones. In addition, plans are in motion for a mobile app where users can shop and have book-specific interactions with other users.

Harrison and her bookstore have faced many changes and obstacles to get to this point, especially in 2020, with a powerful new wave of Black Lives Matter activism and the pandemic. “[In] 2020, [we] shifted to anti-racist literature,” Harrison remarked. “So that was more [for] education for people outside the Black community. A message for the Black community is different than a message for the white community… in that regard, we need to read different resources.” The pandemic took away opportunities for in-person events, which helped the virtual business go viral. “I had so much traffic to the website that it crashed,” said Harrison. “We had over a hundred thousand views a day.”

Despite these challenges, The Key Bookstore is still thriving and actively building a community of thousands of readers. For this Black History Month, they held a fundraiser to raise money for new technologies to implement, including NFC for use in their mobile app. They were also featured at UConn’s Black Excellence Summit this past weekend. Whether at an in-person event or online, The Key Bookstore emphasizes people coming together and expressing their truths, with literature as the foundation. “I don’t know why it’s reading,” Harrison concludes. “I don’t know why it’s books that are so revolutionary and life-changing… It’s the key to anything”.

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