Omar and Kimberly Finley, owners of The Listening Tree, say they review each book before accepting it for their store.
The more than 80,000 attendees to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Decatur Book Festival this Labor Day weekend are evidence that there’s no shortage of people who love books. Owners of a small independent bookstore a short distance from the downtown Decatur event are working to keep the love of books and learning alive in generations to come.
The Listening Tree, a small children’s bookstore on Candler Road, is owned by Omar Finley and his wife Kimberly, who say their own children prompted them to focus on putting books that educate and inspire in the hands of young readers from toddlers through teens, especially Black youth.
“One of our children was writing a poem for school—a Christian school—about the creation. My wife and I took that and expanded it into a book, A World of Our Own—The Beginning, with illustrations showing Black biblical characters,” Finley said.
“We realized that there aren’t many children’s books with Black central characters and such books can be important in shaping a child’s self-image. Many of our traditional children’s stories come from European folklore and typically include such descriptions as ‘there was a beautiful princess with long blonde hair and big blue eyes.’ Black children especially need also to see books that celebrate the beauty in their features as well as their history and culture,” he continued.
Finley said children of all ethnicities come to The Listening Tree and all are welcome. “Although Black children are our focus, we want other children to learn about Black culture from a Black perspective,” he said. The shelves display such titles as Big Hair, Don’t Care; The President Looks Like Me; Counting in Kiswahili; Color my Fro; and Telling Time with Benjamin Banneker and Sekou.
“We review every book we accept for our store. Not only do my wife and I read it, we ask others such as teachers and librarians who work with children—even children themselves—to read the books and tell us what they think. We want to be able to recommend books and discuss any one of them with potential buyers,” Finley said.
He added that the couple looks for books that inspire. “Later, we might start to carry more challenging books that deal with tough subjects, but right now we want books that present a positive image of Black culture and make children think, ‘Hey, I could be like that’—and we want the books to be fun. We want children to come here, feel comfortable and have a good time.”
The small shop that shares a building with a hair salon in its third year in business is doing well, according to the owners. “Frankly, we’re doing better than I thought we might, starting out. I have a good deal of business expertise and I know that sometimes it’s tough getting a new business off the ground,” said Finley, who conducts youth programs in entrepreneurship and financial literacy in association with The Listening Tree.
“Like any business we want to make money, but the real payoff is the delight on the children’s faces when they see all these books featuring people who look like them,” he continued.
The store’s name is similar to that of the Gordon Parks movie The Learning Tree; however, that’s not its origin, Finley said. “I get that a lot, but that’s not what we derived the name from,” he said, explaining that the store’s name was inspired by the ancient tradition of students gathering under a tree to listen to their teachers.
The store’s décor, which Finley designed, includes a tree mural with the word READ in front of which is a rocking chair surrounded by tufts of artificial grass in a variety of shapes. “The person reading to the children, often the author, sits in the rocking chair. The children sit on the ‘grass.’ But first we play a game in which they go to each tuft of grass and name its shape—square, triangle, circle, etc.—if they name them all they get a prize. Trapezoid throws a lot of them, but they have fun playing. We try to incorporate as many learning experiences into their visit as we can.”
The store’s inventory, Finley said, has grown from 27 titles to more than 130—more than the store can shelve. Some he said come from outside the country and are available in the United States only at The Listening Tree. “We didn’t participate in the Decatur Book Festival last year because I didn’t feel we had the inventory to support our participation, but this year, we’ll be there. We’ll definitely be there.”
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