The dark, dingy staircase leads to an even dingier basement. A basement with a maze of stacked boxes, dusty cleaning supplies, moldy walls and abandoned furniture.
But Kymone Freeman has a vision for this 2,400-square-foot space in the heart of Southeast Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood. He sees a colorful room with couches, a stage and bookshelves — lots of wooden bookshelves stuffed with books of all genres.
Freeman is spearheading an effort to transform the drab space into the only bookstore east of the Anacostia River, an area that includes many of the District’s poorest neighborhoods.
As details of the project evolve, organizers have settled on this: It will be named the Charnice Milton Community Bookstore in honor of the 27-year-old journalist fatally shot two years ago in Southeast. Police say Milton was on her way home from covering a community meeting and wasn’t the intended target. No arrests have been made in the case.
Freeman estimates that he’ll need to raise $180,000 for the project.
“Books are the most transformative thing,” he said. “If you can match the kid with the right book, it can change them.”
Freeman, who co-owns We Act Radio — a radio station on Martin Luther King Boulevard in Anacostia, blocks from Frederick Douglass’s historic house — said the bookstore will have a focus on African American authors and will incorporate a social justice mission.
He said he hopes that the bookstore can reduce the city’s illiteracy rate and subsequently reduce violent crime, potentially preventing another death like that of Milton’s. In the District, 19 percent of adults lack the reading proficiency to read a newspaper, according to the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. The illiteracy rate in U.S. prisons is 60 percent, according to National Assessment of Adult Literacy data.
Milton’s parents said the bookstore’s social justice component would make it an ideal tribute to their daughter.
Milton’s mother, Francine Milton, recalled her daughter reading 99 books in a single summer while in elementary school. She was reading Shakespeare in middle school and, as an adult, enjoyed Japanese anime books. She grew up in Southeast and sought to tell stories that otherwise wouldn’t be told as a contributing reporter for Capital Community News.
Her father, Ken McClenton, said that Milton was often bullied but found refuge in books and libraries.
“I see this bookstore as mere justice, not just social justice,” McClenton said. “This is a tribute to what a person can do when the world comes against it. They can overcome it. Even in death, Charnice was not a victim — she was a conqueror.”
The bookstore, which Freeman hopes to open before the end of the year, would be housed in the basement of the We Act Radio studios. Freeman and other activists have collected thousands of donated books to sell at the store, although they eventually hope to sell new and used books.
A nonprofit group affiliated with We Act Radio, Social Art and Culture, would operate the shop. There are plans for professional writing and reading workshops.
But Freeman said that he’s raised only $1,200 so far, a fraction of what’s needed to renovate the basement space. At a ceremony announcing the bookstore last month, representatives from nonprofits, including Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and D.C. police attended to show support.
Trayon White, who represents Ward 8 on the D.C. Council, said the bookstore is a needed addition to the neighborhood. A boom in independent bookstores elsewhere in the city has yet to reach neighborhoods each of the Anacostia River.
“It will show the value of education and literacy in our community,” he said. “It’s an excellent idea that we should all support. We can take something really sad and make it positive for the community.”
For now, Freeman is planning fundraisers while pitching developers on building in the neighborhood. He’s also hoping for a financial boost from city leaders.
More than half a dozen teens and college students are working at We Act Radio as part of the summer jobs program started by former mayor Marion Barry, helping Freeman pitch the store to potential donors.
“This bookstore would mean a lot. It would mean I wouldn’t have had to go all the way uptown to buy books,” said Emani Brown, a 20-year-old senior at Virginia State University who grew up in Southeast. “Having access to a place to purchase books here would be amazing.”
Freeman said he envisions the Charnice Milton Community Bookstore being a mecca of black intellectualism in the community. He can see philosopher and black activist Cornel West hosting a reading, then walking upstairs for a radio interview at We Act Radio.
A photo of Ida B. Wells, a journalist and founding member of the NAACP, greets visitors at the entrance of We Act Radio. Freeman wants to add a mural depicting Milton to honor her writing.
The shop would also enable families to build book collections of their own, he said.
“Not having a bookstore wouldn’t be acceptable in any other part of town,” he said. “The library books need to be returned, which means there are no books left in the shelves at home.”