Tia Hamilton is the founder and owner of Urban Reads Bookstore, which uplifts Black and incarcerated authors. Urban Reads is based in Baltimore, Maryland. You can follow and support Urban Reads on Instagram.
Tell me about your journey to become a bookseller. Why did you open a bookstore?
My magazine, it’s called The State vs. Us Magazine, it taps into the streets and prison and highlights high-profile cases. It talks about the corruption that goes on in the prison, police, and government. It highlights wrongful convictions and success stories of the formerly incarcerated, such as myself. So, I rolled it up in a dope situation, and it’s in the prisons; it’s the number-one source from prisons to the streets, and there’s no other magazine like it. I wanted a store presence. I went to Downtown Locker Room (DTLR), which is an apparel sneaker store where a lot of the gangsters go. I went to these locations with no success. So, I said, “Fuck it. Ya’ll want me in the game? I’m in the game.” But I wasn’t looking at the game as being a bookstore owner: I was just wanting to get in the game [to distribute the magazine]. Right? And it just turns into something different. I’m providing literacy to people who are in prison. When I started the magazine, I wanted the bookstore to put my magazine on the shelf and prison authors on the shelf. So, that’s what I’m doing. In 2019, I had the bookstore.
What was your path to becoming so passionate about literature and about literacy?
Well, I was nothing but a drug dealer and gangbanger who ended up in the streets, but I was also a smart hustler. I had education. My mother was highly educated. My mother’s never been in trouble, never been in jail. She was educated and didn’t educate. So, I went out to the streets to see if I could get it. I went [to prison] for nine months. It will be 18 years in 2024 since I’ve been home, but in the meantime, I had cousins and family members and homeboys going back and forth to prison. I was able to see the disconnect. I was the one bringing drugs in the system for them to do what they got to do to sell. And I saw all of that disconnect and hunger from these different people. And I always knew something was crazy and wrong. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.
With your focus on formerly incarcerated people or incarcerated people, and the culture around book bans, how does that influence the way that you select what books go in your store, or which authors have events at your bookstore, and how you advocate for your community?
Well, the slogan for my store is “The Hub for the Black Author.” My store carries nothing but Black authors, and if it’s a white author in there, then we need to read that. And that’s how I pinpoint who I need in my store. This is for us. This is my love language to Black people. We got to understand that we must read. If we are able to get [kids] to read at a young age, they’re less likely to be in prison. So, it’s important that I instill this literacy. I even do book donations. At book signings, every book that people buy, they can buy one to donate back to the prison.
That’s how I met author Shanita Hubbard, because I did that at her book signing, and she loved it. And that’s how we got to the Ride Beyond Program [helping incarcerated Black women].
I love it! If Urban Reads is your love letter to Black people, how has the community responded to that love letter?
Oh, they love it. They love it. I get a lot of people that support me, though white and Black.
And what challenges have you faced?
It just taints it sometimes, when I’m standing firm in what I believe in: Everything Black with me. And you’re not about to get me to do nothing different. Sometimes that intimidates certain people. And that’s fine. I’m not here to assimilate. I’m here to educate. So if that education intimidates you, you got more learning to do, you got more conversations that need to be had. So, my space is a safe space for those conversations, for those group conversations that we can have, putting that uncomfortable truth on the frontline. I’m okay with that because I’m prepared for the conversation. It’s just that my white counterparts, some of them aren’t. And some of them are mad at me. Some of them do put negative comments out about me.
Have you found a supportive community from other Black booksellers or from booksellers of color, whether they’re in Baltimore or just the broader community, across the country?
I got this Black wall in my store with pictures of our ancestors and famous quotes on the wall. People have come from as far as the West Coast (California), the South (Alabama), East Coast, (Boston), to see this wall, and to be on this wall, and to get their famous picture. Because what I do with my customers, I take pictures [of them and] their purchases. I put them on the wall. And I started that craze going on. So, everybody says, “Yo, I want a picture!”
What I also do is, I take that picture and I put it on Instagram, and I tag those authors. It could be Nikole Hannah-Jones, it could be Michelle Obama, it could be Jada Pinkett-Smith, Tabitha Brown. All of these people have reposted my pictures, have posted me on their page, have done all of this stuff. When I went on Michelle Obama’s page, I said, “Girl, it only took you three years, but I’ll take it!” Those are the things that I do for my customers to show them 1) They are appreciated, and 2) To show these authors where their support is coming from.
Is there a book that lives in your head rent-free? Is there something you commonly recommend for people to start with?
It depends on their reading level. I’m going back and forth with these racists on TikTok right now. I’m like, “There’s a history book with your name on it. Send me your address. I’ll send you a book.” We got Assata Shakur. We got the 1619 Project. Bet on Black by Ebony Williams. We got Angela Davis’s biography. Walter Mosley is good. My magazine, The State vs. Us. There’s a lot of history in my magazine. And when you read it, you’re going to be learning a lot. People think they can’t learn from felons. The smartest person and the hardest-working person you’re going to find comes from prison. People need to give us a chance.
What are you looking forward to with Urban Reads?
More locations. More locations to put out this literature and this word. I want prison illiteracy, that rate, to go down, due to me helping that number go down. I have two locations: My main location, which has My Mama’s Vegan Cafe—that I’m a co-owner of—inside. And my other location is in Lexington market, downtown Baltimore. And everywhere my location goes, My Mama’s Vegan Cafe is going to go with us.
Black and Brown bookstores owners do the important work of curating, amplifying, and preserving the rich throughline of stories that feed us. They are vital members of our local and global communities. Where there is a movement, there are books. But who captures the stories of the booksellers themselves? In this column, SHOP TALK, profiling booksellers, Dara Mathis turns the lens onto Black and Brown bookstores around the world, honoring the journeys that bring them to our neighborhoods.