STORY BY JENNIE TREJO. PHOTOS PROVIDED BY BLACKLIT AND DANIELLE CANDELARIA.
Nia-Tayler Clark radiated a sense of calm as she sat across from me in BLACKLIT, the bookstore that she founded as a safe space to address the lack of minority representation in literature. One would never assume that she had found the locks changed and an eviction notice on her door just a few days prior.
“We thought we were going to have a fundraiser that day, but we couldn’t get in,” Nia says. “People were calling and asking if we were open, and I had to tell them we were not. It was a very hard situation. Saturday, I was a woman of very few words.”
Nia was getting enough calls that it prompted her to post on social media to let the public know that the store was no longer open for the time being. She had no idea her post would go viral and that she would raise $20,000 over the weekend.
“One thing I remember hearing from my mom growing up is ‘My God’s always on time.’ So even though it seemed to me like it was down to the wire, I think it was how it was supposed to happen. I’m so grateful the community pulled in and realized how much we need their support.”
The desire to have a space like BLACKLIT in the metroplex came to Nia in 2018, when she was working as a student teacher for 10th grade English at Pinkston High School in Dallas ISD. One of her students at the time looked at her and said, “I don’t read, Miss. I’m Black.”
The following year, in 2019, she had a similar instance in her own classroom at Grand Prairie High School. Nia quickly noticed a connection between the literacy gap and the lack of representation in literature assigned to her students. They tend to read more when they see themselves in the stories.
“I promised them to try to change their mind,” Nia says. “I told them, ‘Before you leave here, you’re going to find a book, you’re going to like it, and I’m not going to have to force you to read it.’”
Nia stayed true to her promise when all her students received a copy of “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas.
“It was life-changing for me, and for them,” Nia says. “All of them cried. For some students, it was the first book they ever received, or the first book they ever finished. It went just from being within my class, to other kids in the school asking me, ‘Hey Miss, can I get that book?’”
At the end of the book, her class completed a project where they had to create a business to solve one social justice issue. BLACKLIT was Nia’s example in her class. Then, one of her students approached her and said, “Hey Miss, you should really do that. That’s a real business.”
Nia officially founded BLACKLIT in 2019, that same year. It was right around Mother’s Day, so she thought of it as a Mother’s Day gift to herself and a tribute to her son, Tahj.
At the time, she taught, coached girls’ basketball and track, and was a single mother to her six-month-old. Still, she made time to attend vendor events and conferences with a foldable table.
Then came the BLACKLIT subscription box. It started as a monthly service and was the first to highlight black authors and entrepreneurs. She would set a sample box on her table at events to see whether people were interested in it. After enough positive responses, she sent out the first box in January 2020. She packed them in her apartment and would use a wagon to bring them to FedEx.
It blew up. By September 2020, the BLACKLIT box had been featured in BET, Forbes and Oprah.
“Oprah was a big blessing,” Nia says. “I was so busy, I actually completely missed the email from her team, and I never responded. They ended up just using the information from my website, and I’m so grateful they went ahead and did it.”
BLACKLIT’s biggest blessing quickly turned out to be one of its biggest battles because it grew faster than Nia’s team– which was just herself at the time– could keep up.
“I went from packing 100 orders in a one-bedroom apartment to trying to get out 500,” Nia says. “I would go from 6 am to 6 pm at school, but sometimes until 9 pm if we had a basketball game. Then, I would go home and work on my business from 11 pm until 2 am, sleep for a few hours, and try to do it again. I was going crazy.”
Eventually, Nia decided to step away from the classroom and coaching. Her son, who she used to have on her hip while coaching, began calling her “Coach Mom.” That was her sign.
In early 2021, Nia moved the operation from her apartment to a warehouse in Farmers Branch, which happens to be just a few minutes away from her storefront.
“I used to drive past here and park in the handicapped spot before this place was open and breathe. Just pray. Not even knowing that this would be the space one day.”
Nia’s goal was always to open a brick & mortar store, but she needed the subscription boxes to make room for it. She began looking for locations for her store in Dallas and Arlington.
“A lot of people told me I would have to change the name of the company,” Nia says. “They didn’t want the word ‘BLACKLIT’ up, because they were worried it would come off negative. And I would say, ‘You know lit is for literature, as in books, right?’ But they just didn’t want it.”
Eventually, in June of 2022, Nia was able to lease the space they’re currently in. It is the first Black-owned bookstore in Farmers Branch, and had its grand opening in October 2022.
Unfortunately, she could not open up to the public for four months and fell behind on bills. She has been fighting to keep their head above water for the last few months. Eventually, she was met with an eviction notice, but the community proved that BLACKLIT fills a need and is here to stay.
“Representation” and “access” were Nia’s dreams when designing the store. It feels modern, bright, and airy.
“That could start becoming much more normal around here,” Nia says. “The words I keep hearing from people as they come in are ‘safe space,’ and that’s exactly what I want it to be.”
Danielle Candelaria, a resident who brought her 5-year-old goddaughter, Avery, into the store, can attest to this. Danielle says she loved watching Avery react to so many book covers filled with people of color. She believes that it shows kids that people who look like them can be the main characters in stories, and deserve to have their perspectives shared and celebrated.
“It was so refreshing to walk into BLACKLIT and see so much blackness being celebrated in a local bookstore,” Danielle says. “This is what leads to a more diverse and inclusive community, and a better understanding and appreciation of all the different cultures that make up our little area.”
Aside from being a bookstore, BLACKLIT also has an Ethiopian coffee shop inside, and has come to host an array of community events.
Nia’s store hosts a partnership between a men’s book club and a barbershop, which brings in about 70 Black men at a time. They are given free haircuts and have conversations about mental health.
“It is free of charge and judgment,” Nia says. “They’re allowed just to exist. And in a world like today, our community needs places like this.”
A complete list of events can be found on their website and social media, with events ranging from Paint & Sip nights, to open-mic nights, and for the kids, weekly story time on Saturdays.
Once BLACKLIT levels out with finances, Nia plans to continue working in partnership with public schools to ensure all kids have access to literature representing them.
“Our goal is to close the literacy gap, increase representation, and cultivate conversations across racial divides,” Nia says. “We want to make sure BLACKLIT is everywhere.”
You can find their website here if you would like to support BLACKLIT by purchasing from their store or donating.