Shop Talk

Shop Talk with Ashley Valentine of Rooted MKE

Ashley Valentine is the founder and owner of Rooted MKE, a BIPOC children’s bookstore, makerspace, and academic support center. Rooted MKE opened in March 2022 and is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. You can follow Rooted MKE on Instagram.

Tell me about your journey to becoming a bookseller. 

I would certainly say that I am a non-traditional bookseller and bookstore owner. My background is in education; I was previously a Special Education Teacher and owning a bookstore was a dream that I didn’t know would ever come to fruition in the way that it had. I opened Rooted MKE to serve a need for Milwaukee. As an educator, the stories within the curriculum, in my school libraries and provided in my classroom did not look like the community I was serving. I often felt that the challenges many of my students faced related to comprehension and reluctance to experience literature were attributed to the lack of representation. I also felt that there was a lack of community outside of the school setting for families looking for literature reflective of their family and community they call home. I wanted to create space for a community I felt wasn’t celebrated authentically.

How did you come to love books and literacy?

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love reading and interacting with books. I recall a time in elementary school at La Escuela Fratney where I was celebrated for my literacy skills at a young age. This really fostered a sense of pride in literacy and made me feel seen amongst my peers. It validated my love of reading and made me feel safe to continue to challenge myself in the area of literacy.

What do you see as the role of bookstores and booksellers in your community?

I think that my role as a bookseller is to educate, gather and create a haven for Black & Brown people in my community. In general, a bookstore should be a space for gathering, safety and be a home for those interested in literary experiences and building a community for their literacy related needs to be met in a safe, inviting atmosphere. A bookstore should also be the place for education, enrichment and exploration. The idea that people need to “do the work” on their own is lonely and urges those who that message speaks to, to shut down. Instead, I want to be a place where those individuals come, ask questions, listen, listen deeper and leave with tools for their toolkit in order to challenge their perspective and plant a seed for change or deeper awareness.

On your About page, you mention that “there are not many spaces in Milwaukee for black and brown youth to experience literacy.” What longing does your bookstore fulfill for you?

Milwaukee is my hometown and now the place where I choose to raise my multiracial (White and Black) family. My bookstore exists because I didn’t see it. In every bookstore I’ve visited, Black books are in a section while White books are celebrated from wall to wall. That is a problem and instead of asking for something different, I decided to try to create a solution.

How has the community received your bookstore?

I think the community has shown me further why what I am doing is important. I have the amazing opportunity to collaborate with brands nationally and locally, authors and publishers, to spotlight the significance of representation and literacy! 

Tell me a little bit about the neighborhood you chose, which you call on your website “cozy, West Vliet Street.”

I was not intentionally looking for a home on West Vliet Street. I think that divinely, Vliet Street has become home. I first visited the space for a friend who also owns a children’s business and was moving back to the City from Denver. We’d arrived and my girlfriend shared that she wouldn’t be coming but I felt obligated to continue showing out of respect for the realtor. I’d taken pictures and asked questions and immediately called my husband to complain! He quickly challenged me to look at the space as if it were a home to the business that I’d mapped out in 100 different iterations in my “dream notebook.” We scheduled a second showing the next day and I spent the weekend drafting a thorough proposal to the property owner with strong interest in the space. 

Here we are two years later! I appreciate the walkability of West Vliet Street, the ability to connect with so many families who live in the area and the proximity between Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. I appreciate the proximity to Milwaukee Public Schools as well! It is a little challenging to be a proud Black business with a strong mission that leads my decisions in a space where I seemingly stand alone—alone, as in, not a large representation of Black people around where the business is located. I’ve taken that as an opportunity to really be an early depiction of diversity and Black women’s leadership in a space where people need to see it.

We’re in a fraught political time of book bans and the suppression of marginalized histories. How does that ongoing environment affect the way you select books or advocate for your community? 

I say pretty confidently that book bans are the extension of the amplified voice of fear and dominance of White people. I can empathize with how intimidating and threatening it can feel to have the power that you have worked decades to create, nurture, and leverage, questioned and challenged so loudly. I think that book banning is an example of intention and targeting attempts to erase and silence the experience of anyone, not White and cis-gendered. I am not baffled or surprised. I think people hold strongly to beliefs that are ingrained in who they are as a race and though they may not vocalize these biases as boldly, politically we have emboldened hate, violence and rage. 

These bans are not about Black and Brown authors that they disproportionately impact. It feels like a strategic effort to erase history and silence the voices of those who are a threat. It further invigorates me to keep going and along the way make space for those same people to be educated, gently through the lens of a children’s educator and bookseller. 

Research shows that talking about issues like race and gender from the age of two not only helps children understand what they see, but also increases self-awareness, self-esteem, and allows them to recognize and confront things that are unfair, like discrimination and prejudice. Though children’s books are targeted at children, they do a beautiful job at making messages palatable for the adults who are reading the books to said children. [Books like] You Be Mommy by Karla Clark, as well as Our Skin by Jessica Ralli and Megan Madison, in this season of parenting, live in my heart rent-free! For me, it’s a bold way to start a safe conversation about accountability and awareness to create a shift in perspective. 

What are the most enjoyable and challenging aspects of owning a bookstore for you?

I absolutely love curating book collections, thinking up experiences for youth and families and being able to open up the space to like-minded people and organizations. I have a generous heart and have a habit of simply giving to children because I recognize that they don’t hold the means to be consumers. I absolutely hate having to make it make financial sense. What I mean by that is, at the end of the day, I am a for-profit business and fully understand that I have commitments and obligations as a business owner that I am accountable for. Often I have to almost convince people that the suggested retail price of a book is what I expect to be paid. With larger organizations, the harmful logic that tiny businesses should offer a bulk purchase discount is stressful and impacts our bottom line, not the bottom line of the publisher. 

For 2024, I am strongly leaning into a pivot that allows me to be a present mother to my toddlers and regain a sense of who I am and why I do the work that I do without the pressures of succeeding at capitalism, as a member of the minority, as it relates to funding opportunities and venture capital opportunities. I love my work but not enough to keep sacrificing financially to contribute to the Milwaukee community.

What are you looking forward to at Rooted MKE this year?

I look forward to taking the lessons of two years of business and fine-tuning a more focused approach of supporting and building a community for educators, parents who are passionate about literacy, and corporations who want to see these communities thrive. I also would love to see Rooted MKE expand beyond a local brand! There are Black and Brown babies and families across the country who resonate with my message and vision. To build an entire ecosystem of Black and Brown literacy support that empowers parents would be huge! 

I also need to get better at reaching the people who already understand and are aligned with the mission, as compared to convincing people that what I contribute to the world is valuable. That may look like consulting or strategic partnerships to amplify our mission. Fingers crossed on a collaboration with Target, Kohls or major retailers, where Rooted MKE curates collections that feature Black and Brown characters. Rooted MKE is much more than a bookstore; it is truly a lifestyle that needs to be fed and nurtured daily to create change.

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.

Filed under: Shop Talk


Dara T. Mathis is a nonfiction writer and reporter whose writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Week, and other places. Her work often examines motherhood, Black liberation movements, and the ways we make home where we are. She resides with her husband and three children in Maryland.