Jazzi McGilbert never planned to open a bookstore. A long-time fashion girl (from intern, to stylist, to editor), her love of reading had always felt like a hobby, not a career path. So how did she end up creating a beloved book store in South LA? Well, she didn’t exactly. Reparations Club is much more than a bookstore. What started as an ode to her late mother, grew into “a concept bookshop and creative space curated by Blackness.” The space has become a home to the community and the culture, with intimate events, books, beauty and music for and by Black people. We spoke to Jazzi about “stumbling into” entrepreneurship and the pressure that comes with running a business that exists to serve a community.
Q: How would you describe Reparations Club and how did it come about?
A: I opened Reparations Club in 2019, about nine months after my mother passed away. I think I was really looking for community and space. Growing up as a queer Black woman in LA, I really didn't have a lot of spaces that felt like they were meant for me. I was inspired by spaces like the Slauson Swap Meet, that felt like they centered Black folks needs with some specificity. That was the priority - the four walls, the intention, and then the rest kind of came later.
Q: So why a bookstore?
A: I was always a very bookish kid and still am an introvert. My punishment was being forced to go outside! I was just lost in a book all the time. I never thought I would have a bookstore. I don’t come from money, I didn't have any models in my family of business ownership, so that didn't seem like a path that was open to me. I just sort of felt my way through the loss of my mom, and went back to my first love: books. were a natural starting point. It makes more sense in hindsight.
Q: I’d love to know more about the process of designing the space. It has such a clear aesthetic, vision and feel to it. What did you want it to look and feel like?
A: I wanted the space to feel as warm as my grandmother's house, as warm as my cousins’ houses, the spaces that I did feel really safe in. Color and texture were a big part of that. There are some seventies influences, nineties vibes. My grandmother's house, I realize now,just hadn't been updated in my youth because we didn't have a lot of money. But I have a lot of nostalgia for those two decades in particular;beyond just aesthetics they represented a certain visibility and creativity for Black people in America, including myself.
Q: What is the criteria for the books and other items that are in this space?
A: We say the store is “curated by Blackness,” which to me means any and every expression of Black life and the Black experience. I'm looking just around me right now, I see Black mermaids. I see Black queer people, I see indigenous stories. I see our history. I see our futures. I see romance. I see comedy… there are very few limitations here beyond our literal shelf space.
Q: I love what you just said about anything that touches Black lives. Do you think because your business is so rooted in something that's deeply personal, but also serving a community, that there's an added dimension of what it means to have this business as opposed to one that is purely a money-making endeavor?
A: I think for better and sometimes for worse, that is true. I think when you state your intention to be in service of, or a space for Black people and Black stories, those things can feel at odds with what the system is designed to support. I think if I were doing something really different, I might have an easier path ahead. I think also when there are so, so few spaces doing what we do, it puts a lot of pressure on myself as a business owner. Hey, you know, I'm just one little Black girl in Los Angeles, California. I can only do my best, and I feel a lot of pressure that it will never be enough...the expectations are high. But it’s an honor to have my community resonate with my vision.I’m trying, and that’s something.
Q: What do you think has been the biggest surprise about having this space?
A: I think as an entrepreneur, as a creative, the biggest surprise to me has been all of the behind the scenes stuff that people don't see when they walk into a business. So from invoicing, staff management, payroll, forecasting, returns, so many things. I'm learning something new every single day. I also have been surprised that something so personal resonated with so many other people. I love that other people can come here and see themselves. I think that is always a reminder to me of how shared of an experience we all have, even as individuals.
Q: What do you think you want the legacy of your business to be?
A: I just want to make my mom proud. That's it. I think that's at the core of so many children who grow up to be adults. And I think I've done that, so in some ways, mission accomplished. My mom's not here physically anymore, but I think she'd be really proud of the space. It's something she talked about, she never quite figured out how to get away from her 9-5. So I'm really proud of myself that I figured that out. I hope 50 years from now, people will tell stories about this space the way I talk about the neighborhood when I grew up. Ellis Haizlip is a big inspiration for me. He had this TV show on PBS called Mr. Soul. And the legacy of creating a platform for Blackness to shine.So that's what I hope to leave here, whether the space exists in the future or not.
Q: Reparations Club was the first retailer that ever reached out to carry the Baby Tress Edge Styler®. What did it mean to you to be able to foster relationships with like-minded businesses, serving the same community and not just growing a business yourself, but being a part of the growth of other businesses?
A: I think that's an example of what I want to continue about this space. I think Hannah [Baby Tress CEO & Co-Founder] and I both took a chance on each other. We weren't anything when I reached out, but I'm a naturally really curious person and saw something that was beautifully designed to meet Black women’s needs. That's what I was trying to do with this space, so naturally, Baby Tress resonated with that. Hannah believed in what we were creating, in terms of a home for objects like the Edge Styler®, so it was kind of perfect. I like to think of us as an incubator for a lot of ideas and would love to highlight more products like that. A lot of people said no at first too, Baby Tress was one of the first to say yes and there’s a symbiosis that happened - a cool space, a cool product, working together.
Q: What do you want the next couple years of Reparations Club to look like?
A: I want the next couple years of Rep Club to be more resourced. Our customers support us to the absolute best of their ability, but I think there's some institutional support and some things that need to change in the industry that haven't happened yet. It’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice to keep this space in this city.
We would like to have more space. We're still here, but the reality is that gentrification is closing in on us every day. So just making sure that we're able to keep doing what we've been doing - without it being quite so hard. I'm looking for a little more ease. You know, we need to grow our team, grow the space, but I want to do so in a sustainable way. Not just growth for the sake of growth, but because there's a demand for the space and what we're doing and having the resources to do that without all of the risk being on me all the time.
Q: You mentioned that you were hearing a lot of “no’s” to begin with. What keeps you motivated as a small business that is hearing a lot of “no’s”.
A: I think I've seen a number of those ‘no’s turn into ‘yes’s. I think people are protective over what they do, as are we, so I understand where it's coming from and never really take it personally. To me it's a creative act, this whole space. All of this was born of constraint. Being Black in America, you hear ‘no’ all the time. If a ‘no’ kept me down, the space wouldn't be here.
Q: The space is well-known for the events that you host here. Can you describe what it’s like to hold an event here? Being here in the day is beautiful, but what does it become at night?
A: The space kind of transforms at night, the lights get colorful, the stage comes out, the chairs come out, the night owls come out! It's never quiet in here, but by day it can be a little more reserved. You can come and sit and read a book. We turn up a little bit more at night, we have lots of authors come through. That's been really special just - the variety of thinkers that have come in this space. We’ve had some really intimate discussions here, conversations that I don't know could have happened in the same way anywhere else. That's exciting. And then, you know, we've also had spontaneous karaoke nights! We've done Saturday morning cartoons, birthday parties, whatever we want to do. I think the nice thing here is that we can really just experiment People have described this as their living room, which I love.
Q: What was one of the most memorable events you've had here?
A: I think for me it was the karaoke night that we did, because we announced it with like 48 hours notice! We all were just like, hey, if nobody comes, we'll have a good time. And a lot of people showed up! They were shy at first, and then just watching everybody relax into it and, I mean, Black people singing and laughing is my favorite soundtrack.
Q: What do you think was the moment that you knew, early on, that you were onto something with Reparations Club? When did it start to feel like you were actually doing this and it was working?
A: I don't know that I ever had any doubts. That naïveté has served me well in other places in my life. Just going for it and figuring out the hard stuff later. I knew I had enough money to pay rent for the first year, and if it closed after that, I could say that I tried. But the things that have made it feel real…I don't know that I actually have gotten the time to really stop and look back very much, but some of the authors, some of my favorite authors who have just reached out to us and they're like, ‘hey, we heard you're doing something great. I want to have an event at your space!’ They could go anywhere. And they’ve still come here.. That means a lot. That feels like proof that we're onto something. The customers that come back, the babies who came in a stroller and now they're walking and talking and picking out books for themselves, that's really cool to see. The people make this space.
Visit Reparations Club IRL at 3054 S Victoria Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90016.
Images courtesy of Reparations Club