COCOA, Fla. – It was always a dream of Michelle Davis to own her own bookstore. Davis’ husband, Nathaniel, said their whole family is full of avid readers, just like Michelle.
The only problem with big-box bookstores -- Nathaniel said they lacked black authors and minority representation on the shelves.
“That was one of Michelle’s driving forces because she went into one of the big box stores looking for a particular book and asked the sales rep where the Black author’s section was. The rep pointed to it. A small shelf of Black authors. That bugged Michelle because she didn’t even find the book she wanted,” said Nathaniel.
There weren’t a lot of Black authors, Black characters or even books about Black history readily available on the shelves of the larger bookstores, according to Nathaniel.
”We need more representation because there is a lot of talent out there and they’re not being recognized. Urban books, because of the content, stores like Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million don’t want to carry the books,” said Nathaniel.
So, just open your own Urban Bookstore, right? It wasn’t that simple. Michelle was working as a Supply Technical Specialist for a military contractor. Nathaniel was serving in the Air Force. The two were also taking care of their three sons.
But it wasn’t the lack of representation in other bookstores that nudged Michelle to open her very own bookstore, it was a tragedy.
“About 10 years ago we lost our youngest son, Jonathan Davis. Michelle really needed a project or business that she could put her time into,” said Nathaniel.
Jonathan was working as a contractor for the U.S. State Department in Pakistan. Nathaniel said their son had a heart attack and passed away at the young age of 23. Any parent’s worst nightmare: burying their child.
“It was difficult for Michelle to hold a regular nine-to-five job. We wanted her to have her own business where she could be flexible,” said Nathaniel.
It was a gift from Nathaniel to his grieving wife. In 2011, the family opened the Essence of Knowledge urban bookstore at 1229 West King Street in Cocoa.
“It’s a niche here in cocoa because there’s really no place else in this area that has a bookstore like ours,” said Nathaniel.
The store houses more than 1,500 titles. Everything from children’s books, to self-help, history, cookbooks and fiction novels. Most of the books were written by Black authors.
“When you get into the urban books. I call that the entertainment section. Some of the stories are based on real life but they’re talking about drugs, sex and violence,” said Nathaniel.
Davis said some of the authors spent time in jail.
“A lot of them find their passion from writing their stories after they’ve been incarcerated. It’s sad because they have all this talent and then realize they can write their story,” said Nathaniel.
But Essence of Knowledge is not just a bookstore, it’s an art gallery. The paintings and pictures displayed are for sale, along with jewelry and other art pieces from local artists.
“We consider ourselves as servicing the community by offering them information like entertainment, black history and self help,” said Nathaniel. “Urban books you don’t have to go online to find, they’re right on the shelf.”
Owning a bookstore is a passion for Michelle. Nathaniel admits the store brings in just enough money to help the family get by. Just like many other small businesses, the pandemic made things difficult. But the civil protests brought in a new type of clientele.
“The shutdown was rough, but we were able to hang in there. What was really interesting is when we were able to open back up, because of all the civil unrest going on, people wanted to be educated and we had a huge influx of different people from all walks of life: college professors, students and housewives. Coming in and looking for different books on black culture, racism and just wanting to be educated because of the climate going on and still going on. Because of that, we were able to survive,” said Nathaniel.
Bringing an Essence of Knowledge to the Brevard County community. If you think about it, the name of the store is fitting. Defining its purpose and the dream of a woman who believes representation should be reflected in everything, even books on the shelves of a store.
A dream the Davis family believes will keep customers shopping at their small shop.
“There’s a loyalty following. Once people know we’re here, they want to support. We can’t beat online prices or Walmart prices, but our customers would rather support a black-owned business than give money to larger corporations,” said Nathaniel.