Award-winning bookstore hatched in Jefferson Chalmers finds a home in Southwest Detroit

At the corner of Michigan Avenue and 25th Street, north of the iconic Hygrade Deli, sits a brick and glass block storefront, muraled along one side. It has been a hardware store, a novelty shop, and an artist-run workspace. If you didn’t know better today, you might drive by and miss Detroit’s newest independent book store. 

“We’re working on our signage for that reason,” says 27th Letter Books co-owner Erin Pineda, laughing. The former pop-up opened doors to its permanent home in Southwest Detroit on June 12, featuring underrepresented authors, small presses, and excellent writing.

Street View of 27th Letter Books at 3546 Michigan Avenue"But we’re also trying a grassroots way of reaching out," she says, "by looking at what organizations and groups are already in this community and asking how we can connect, and serve them.” 

It’s a slow unveiling process, and one she hopes will foster lasting relationships. “We're asking folks that come in what they want to see in our bookstore. It’s important for us to be intentional," she says, "because our goal is to be here a long time.”

The Brighton native's great-grandparents owned small businesses in Detroit decades ago: a hardware store and a paint and wallpaper business on the city’s northwest side. Family was a draw for Pineda and her husband Drew when they came to Detroit in 2018, looking to share their dream. 

Former Air Force officers, the couple met in the Academy in Colorado Springs. They spent the year following their active duty (Erin is still with the Reserves) touring the country in a tricked-out Honda Element “camper” full of books and conversation about the future.

Drew, a creative writing MFA graduate, had found great comfort through literature during his two-year battle with cancer. Sharing about that journey remains essential to his healing today. At the book shop, he and general manager Jazmine Cooper foster evenings of accountability and support to anyone working on writing projects. 

Drew's diagnosis and treatment caused him and Erin to think deeply about what mattered most. While traveling, they lingered in community hubs and independent bookstores, nourishing the idea of creating their own literary space.

“If I have the opportunity to call a place home now, I want it to be meaningful and impactful,” says Drew, who grew up in a consistently moving military family. To engage with neighbors as much as possible, he and Erin have settled in the Southwest neighborhood near the store.

Forming relationships and exploring ideas, language, and art is what 27th Letter Books is about. The couple opened the space last month with friends and co-owners Cooper, a fellow creative writing MFA student, and Jake Spease, a two-dimensional artist. Their logo, the ampersand symbol, is sometimes called the 27th letter of the English alphabet, and signifies the group’s desire to be a bookstore & more.

The road from pop-up to storefront

Inside the shop, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sing, “Ain’t no mountain high, ain’t no valley low, ain’t no river wide enough, baby.” PeeWee, the resident cat, has claimed a sunny spot along the window near the speaker. From every direction color leaps: book covers, shelf tops, cozy seats, and braided rugs. Wood floors meet cool brick under exposed rafters. A chess game begs to be played, while white orchids bloom.

Inside the bookstoreIt’s been a journey to find this space, says Erin. 

In 2019, 27th Letter Books won the Comerica Hatch Detroit contest, receiving a $100,000 grant along with in-kind services to help develop the pop-up business into a brick and mortar store. The Pinedas competed against hundreds of small business ideas, spent weeks campaigning for community votes, and presented a “shark tank” pitch against four semi-finalists to win.

They had planned to use the proceeds to open a site in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood. For over a year, they searched the community and the greater east side, Drew says, looking for a place to fit their needs and the needs of those they want to serve.

“Accessibility is really important to us. A lot of the historic buildings and places we came by either weren’t able to be made accessible to wheelchairs," he says, "or we ran into a wall with stakeholders who wouldn’t entertain that conversation.”

Creating accessibility through a commercial chair lift or elevator is costly, Erin adds, but a line item they weren’t willing to budge on.

There were landlords in the city eager to lease to a small business, but who couldn't afford to make their building “white box” ready, she says. At the same time, she and Drew struggled to invest large capital in a leasing space. While community development organizations and city programs like Match Detroit are working to close this gap, she says, it's been their greatest struggle.

"I don't think a lot of people realize how difficult the commercial real estate market in Detroit really is," she says.

Residing in the neighborhood they’d serve was also a priority that added challenges. By early 2020, the couple reached out to a commercial realtor to help them stretch their search.

And then the pandemic hit.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Pop-ups were cancelled and 27th Letter Books was pushed to the back burner as Drew and Erin pivoted to full-time employment. With the store in its infancy today, they both still work a “day job.” The business held an online presence during the pandemic through a partnership with Bookshop.org.(Amazon for independent bookstores), but their dream of a storefront seemed to be slipping away.

“The whole time we’d been talking to Jake and Jazmine as friends, and brainstorming,” Erin says. Drew and Cooper are both steeped in the literary community, and Spease had previously sought ways to collaborate his art with the booksellers. A conversation about co-ownership naturally evolved, and almost immediately following, the space at 3546 Michigan Ave. appeared.

Co-owners Drew and Erin Pineda, Jazmine Cooper and Jake SpeaseThe former Holding House was a gallery and workshop that paired the talents of local artists with neighborhood service organizations. The building boasts retail and event space, a walled grassy yard, and a large lower level for workshops, offices and development possibilities.

Best of all, it was already wheelchair accessible, ready for tenants, and owned by creatives who share the group’s passion for community literacy and art.

“It was the first space we’d been in where we felt we could grow into all the different visions we have for the store,” says Erin. 

The portion of the Comerica Hatch Detroit grant they’ve received has allowed them to initially secure the commercial space and purchase inventory. The team plans to use the rest of the funding to grow inventory and help build out the basement for retail, perhaps a children's floor.

In addition to the grant, Erin says the pro bono services, like legal and civil engineering support, that Hatch and its partners have provided the store have been "invaluable."

The shop's art manager, Spease, is thrilled about the downstairs space that'll include his studio. He makes journals, takes photos, paints, draws, and does traditional printmaking. He's looking forward to hosting community workshops at the store and creating a space where local artists can display and sell their work. 

“There’s a lot of really talented artists in the area, and getting a solo show that gives you exposure is tricky," he says. "It’s usually a group show where you’re at a table and don’t necessarily get the chance to display your work the way you want.”

He’s talking with a freelance artist from the neighborhood, Andre Ayala, who’ll be the first guest artist showcased in the store. A College of Creative Studies graduate, Ayala does graphic and product design, illustration and more. He also runs a Mexican-Mediterranean restaurant pop-up in the neighborhood called The Sexy Egg. 

“It’s a really cool opportunity I’m grateful for,” he says about having his work displayed for viewing and sale. He's planning on portraits, a mixture of simplistic modern pieces, and “grungy” abstract figures.

Ayala, a second-generation Mexican American, says Erin asked if he’d also like to read stories in Spanish to kids at the shop. “I was honored, you know? We might even do art lessons in Spanish,” he says. “There’s a lot of possibilities for this bookstore.”

The neighborhood needs a place where people can wander in and just feel comfortable, he says. Where they can browse books, take art lessons, go to community events and build relationships. Since meeting the Pinedas through Cooper and Spease, he’s welcomed them at his local pop-up and spent time having dinner in their home. 

“Erin and Drew are wonderful people, which is why their business is successful," Ayala says. "Every single time I’ve gone to the shop and had a conversation with Drew, he’s like, ‘I’ve got just the book for you.' He pulls it out—no hesitation, he knows exactly where it’s at—and hands it to me.”

A carefully curated book selection is key to the store’s mission. “We’re a general interest bookstore but you wouldn’t find too many really popular books here,” says Cooper. “We like to focus on a diversity of authors, those who are kind of under the radar but really good writers, and small presses because they don’t get enough attention but have great stuff.”

She's been working with Drew to build a robust inventory that extends to local and international authors, poetry and art, crafts, graphic novels, and a range of mainstream books translated to Spanish: Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel, "Dune"; Angie Thomas's debut, "The Hate U Give"; Don Freeman’s beloved children’s book, "Corduroy"; and more.

Children's picture books in English and SpanishChildren’s books are the highlight of Saturday mornings at the bookshop. Resident storyteller and longtime educator Alyce Hartman has been partnering with the Pinedas since their pop-up days. In good weather, she hosts storytime on the shop’s patio space Saturdays at 10 a.m., followed by a craft or activity demonstrated on the shop’s social media. Families can pick up materials in the store and reconnect with Hartman online anytime.

In early July, children listened to Hartman read "Seeds Move," by Robin Page, and planted a cantaloupe garden to bring home.

“Picture books are one of the greatest tools we have to prepare children to begin school,” she says. “You can’t replace being able to walk into a bookstore, see the colors, flip through picture books and even smell them. I hope this is an opportunity for us to sow into our children, at an early age, the desire to read and enjoy books.”

Adults can enjoy their own storytime by joining the Ampersand Bookclub which meets the last Wednesday of every month at 7:00 p.m. Check out @27thletterbooks on Facebook and Instagram, and 27letterbooks.com, for store hours and event details.

Digital audiobooks can be purchased through the shop by visiting libro.fm and selecting 27th Letter Books as your store.


 

Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller 
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