News of Toni Morrison’s death this week hit Tomarra Buckner like a defibrillator to the chest.

Growing up in Akron, Ohio, Buckner had loved books — but she always felt the books she read, from the Great Gatsby to Huckleberry Finn, weren’t written for her.

That all changed when the discovered Morrison’s breakout 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye. The story is, among other things, an exploration of what it’s like to live with black skin in a country where beauty standards are moored around whiteness.

And the girl at the center of that journey was a young black girl from Ohio — just like Buckner.

It was a revelation.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have books with any people in them that looked like me,” she said, speaking from her home in Northwest Philly’s Germantown neighborhood. “The school system is so Eurocentric — it’s hard for black kids to see themselves when they’re in an English class.”

“Everyone should be able to see themselves somewhere,” she added.

If it wasn’t for Morrison’s book — and the universe of African-American literature it opened up — Buckner, now 28, may never have launched her new small business. Its main purpose is to allow more people to see themselves in the mirror of the page.

In March, Buckner started Black Soul Vintage, an Instagram-based used bookstore focusing on the black experience.

The outlet dabbles in various thrifted wares, from leather chairs to vinyl records, but its primary focus is decidedly books about the black lives. Black Soul currently offers local pickups and offers shipping elsewhere, and will soon launch a monthly book subscription service.

While still in the passion project realm (the Insta account right now has fewer than 300 followers), Buckner’s eclectic range of titles and discerning eye for bold mid-century dust jackets has already won her a number of customers via social media.

“Sometimes I’m surprised at how many books I sell,” she chuckled.

Get that ‘used book energy’

Despite some losses, Philly remains home to a committed cadre of used book stores, many of them with robust collections of black literature. It also has black-owned bookstores, like the still-thriving Black and Nobel at Broad and Erie.

Buckner herself is a regular at Uncle Bobbie’s, a cafe bookstore that stocks predominantly black authors in Germantown.

Black Soul Vintage, she says, separates itself with its social media-only presence and its “used books only” vibe.

She took some cues from the Brooklyn-based BLK MKT Vintage, which sells “black collectibles, cast-offs and curiosities” that celebrate black history and culture. Reuse and thrifting have become part of Buckner’s organizational philosophy in life. She rarely buys anything new, she said.

And with Black Soul Vintage, she makes that part of her sales pitch. Alongside pictures of the weathered paperbacks she has up for sale are notes about how low cost and environmentally friendly they are. Plus, she argues, used books bring you into conversation with readers past.

“They have a special energy,” Buckner said. “When you read a book someone has read before…I like to see little notes, or underlines, because it’s like ‘Wow, whoever had this before me thought this was really powerful or worth noting.’ Sometimes it helps you pay attention.”

‘The black section is a pedestal’

Buckner moved to Philly to attend Drexel University in 2009. After a stint in Los Angeles after graduation, she returned to the city. She now works full-time in the nonprofit world and juggles what she describes as a million side hustles, from freelancing as a makeup artist to shooting film.

Black Soul Vintage isn’t about to allow her quit her day job — but that is the dream, one day.

So far, she’s sold novelists like Morrison, James Baldwin and Alice Walker; playwright August Wilson; theorists like Franz Fanon; anything from the Black Power movement. It’s not all black authors, either — just books dealing with the black experience. She recently brought in an order of young adult novels as well, and she’s not afraid to admit she shops for titles with well-aged cover jackets that will pop on social media.

“I’m really obsessed with the late 60, 70s cover art,” she said.

In recent years, some black writers and booksellers have condemned the siloing of black authors in stores, who are often shelved away from the “regular” literature.

For Buckner, the black books section is not a form of literary segregation, but a helpful compass for her in her hunt for the next best friend. She says the signposting tells her what she needs to know — here are the books where you’ll see yourself.

“To me,” Buckner said, “the black section is a pedestal.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...