In 2004, Zee Johnson converted the first floor of a dilapidated former drug house into a comfortable, safe place for people to browse through more than 500 books.   

Today, Olive Tree Books-n-Voices provides a space for bibliophiles to browse — and a place for the predominantly Black community of Mason Square to connect. It’s also just one of a handful of Black-owned bookstores in Massachusetts.  

Producer Dave Fraser visited Olive Tree recently and brings us the story. 


Read the Full Transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: In 2004, Zee Johnson converted the first floor of a dilapidated former drug house into a comfortable, safe place for people to browse through more than 500 books.

Since then, Olive Tree Books-n-Voices has become a beloved community center in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Mason Square and is just one of a handful of Black-owned bookstores in Massachusetts.

Producer Dave Fraser visited Olive Tree recently and brings us the story.

Zee Johnson, Olive Tree Books-n-More: I promise to work hard and do what’s right.

A book can provide a number of things. It can provide comfort. It can provide growth, certainly. It can change attitudes. It can create self-awareness. It can allow you to exchange ideas. It’s a chance to really have some introspectiveness to really think about who you are as a person and what it is that you want to do with your own life.

This was an abandoned building, and I’m not ashamed to say that it was, you know, a building of less desirables. It was a former crack house.

I remember distinctively one neighbor watching me and said to me, “are you going to, you know, buy that place? Are you going to rent that place? You know, I’ve seen you over here a couple of times.”

And I turned to her and said, “yeah, you know, I’m thinking about” and she said, “praise God because, you know, we want this sore spot to be out of our neighborhood.”

I envisioned this is oh, when I retire, I’ll just sit in a bookstore and I’ll wave to customers.  And that was 15 years ago. That was not the track and trail that I had that I was on. Lo and behold, when the community and when others found out that there’s a bookstore, it started to increase.

Esther Hudson, Springfield: It’s really just a bookstore, though. It’s a community, you know, and it’s a family. And I think that’s why I tend to want to hang out here, because it is like a family.

Darelene Reina, Chicopee: Usually when you walk into a bookstore, there’s always like the section of Black books and, you know, Black authors. But here it’s the whole store, you know, the joy on the walls, the color.

You know, it’s — it feels like home and not just somewhere where you buy a book, but you also hear a story.

Donald Felton, Springfield:  Because I haven’t done everything in life.

One of the things that inspires me to want to read and want to know, because when I come in here, I look around and I see so many people who look like me. I brought my daughter here when she was young. So for them, kids seeing people who look like them. You know, this can be inspiring.

Zee Johnson: I’m a woman who has hurt as immeasurable as I have loved.

I was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, so I was able to read books about African-Americans and ect cetera, because that was my environment and world. So when I looked at Mae Jemison, when I looked at Debbie Thomas, the skater, when I looked at a number of heroes, I could envision myself, I could be there because I had a framework. It wasn’t just my imagination.

I had concrete evidence that these people exist.

Protestors: No justice. No peace. No justice. No peace.

Zee Johnson: It woke a lot of folks up in terms of “let me really understand other people other than myself,” and then “let me understand if I’m part of this problem or if I’m going to be part of the solution.”

Customer: Give your elbow. OK.

Zee Johnson: So, that triggered a lot of people to come into the store and really have good conversations about what should be next steps.

Even though Mason Square can be portrayed or viewed as less than desirable. I wanted to be able to say, “no, that’s not true.” We can build as a community, we can turn a sore spot into something that’s like a rose. I want it to be in a place that people could consider it their own.