Veera Warren-Williams, The Community Book Center
Vera Warren-Williams, the Belle of Bayou Road, is the quintessential educator and consummate activist for small businesses and change in the local New Orleans community. She strives to bring solidarity and knowledge to the people of New Orleans through her business, the Community Book Center. The name of her business is not a misnomer; as her website touts, “The Community Book Center is more than a book store.” It is a place for locals to come and share fellowship with neighbors. It provides books on everything from children’s bedtime stories to politics, and it serves as a meeting place for locals to come and share ideas and knowledge, business plans and political action for the advancement of the neighborhood. Her tireless activism led her to be chosen as the first winner of the Toni Cade Bambara Award for Cultural Leadership, which is given by the New Orléans Afrikan Film and Arts Festival Project.
Mrs. Warren-Williams, a native New Orleanian, grew up in a family of educators. Her godmother, who was the principal of an elementary school, filled Warren-Williams’s life with books and instilled in her the love of reading. This love, coupled with her knowledge about her people, helped her to recognize the lack of adequate materials, for and about African Americans, in the New Orleans Public School system where she was a “long-term substitute teacher.” She started bringing books from her personal collection for the children. When the other teachers saw the positive reaction from the children, they wanted to borrow the books to use in their classes. Mrs. Warren-Williams remembered sage advice from her mother—“never a borrower or a lender be,” so instead of loaning the books to the teachers, she started a small book service that provided books to the teachers and ultimately the African American community; thus a business was born. She started this business with $300 from her personal savings.
She visited local book fairs with her books, put a rack up in local bookstores, and sold books from her parent’s living room in the Lower 9th ward before setting up shop on Ursulines Avenue in Treme. She would move once more before settling on Bayou Road in Esplanade Ridge. From its humble beginnings to its final destination, Community Book Center was run more like a community service center than a money-making venture. The bottom line was not necessarily profits, but providing a service.
Mrs. Vera Warren-Williams tries to get people in the community to open businesses in the area to help spur the economy and make African Americans a viable force that can effect change in the community. She also encourages Black-on-Black profit sharing by extolling the benefits to the community when New Orleanians buy local and buy from black retailers. If The small businesses in the community can unite, they will effect a positive change that can span generations. “When spider webs unite,” Warren-Williams says, “they can tie up a lion.” Many small, African-American owned businesses banding together can effect a positive change in the community. It breeds pride and unity which extends outward and touches everyone. Warren-Williams does not mind if this starts with her This drive to spur local business ventures, to bring African-Americans together, and to encourage community service led Warren-Williams to be nominated for the Toni Cade Bambara Award.
She extends her love of helping others and building pride through community service by being the Board Chair of the Hope for Haitian Children Foundation (HFHCF). She collects supplies and donations for the children and people of Haiti. She is making a difference not just in New Orleans but in Haiti as well.
A world traveler, Warren-Williams believes that learning about our own culture as well as other cultures destroys ignorance. Knowledge breeds respect, and self-respect is necessary for any advancement in the community. A tireless activist, Mrs. Warren-Williams also enjoys spending time with her son, Ali, and her husband Dr. Garry Williams.
Though her goal is for her store to be self-sufficient, having its success measured not in dollars and cents but by lives touched is pretty good—for now.