'A true sense of community': How the only Black-owned bookstore in Phoenix fosters belonging

In a white building on the corner of Washington and Twelfth Streets, kids laugh and ride their scooters in the parking lot while soulful music spills out and invites visitors to step inside. Curious customers can browse bookshelves filled with topics ranging from historic events that led to social justice movements to fictional adventurers who mirror real-world activists fighting oppression.

Grassrootz Bookstore & Juice Bar in Phoenix is the only independent Black-owned bookstore in the city and exists as a community space where people can come to learn, work and feel a sense of belonging. A few years ago, the business started with two second-hand bookshelves.

"When we first opened, we didn't have anything," Ali Nervis, the owner of Grassrootz known as "Brother Ali", told The Arizona Republic. Today, the space fosters healing, education and conversation.

Born to enterprise

Growing up, Nervis spent hours in his mother's art gallery in El Paso, Texas, where she worked as an artist and the owner. He looked up to her to understand what a successful business looked like early on. Nervis experienced that venture twofold — it was his mother's way of providing for their family and putting him through school, and her way of bringing the community together.

His mother became the inspiration for his entrepreneurial spirit. When he was in middle school, he recalled, she sent him off to class carrying a box of watches and instructed him to get creative and sell them to his classmates.

After that, "The bug bit me and has been stuck with me," Nervis said.

He would eventually go to New Mexico State University for business management and in 2008 he moved to Phoenix to work in financial services, an industry he would stay in for 10 years. During that time, Nervis said he became aware of injustices in the city. He particularly noticed the absence of spaces for Black people to gather and foster community.

In 2018, he left his employer to work full-time for Archwood Exchange, a marketplace he had started over a year earlier to support other small businesses in downtown Phoenix.

"The community work was really what inspired me and pushed me back into business," Nervis said. From there, things only got bigger.

Solving problems with a vision

After moving to Phoenix, Nervis noticed almost immediately there was a lack of "third places" in the community.

Third places are spaces outside of the home and workplace where people can go to experience a sense of belonging or identity — coffee shops, gyms, parks, community centers and libraries. According to Nervis, for Black residents, these third places don't typically exist outside of churches or barbershops.

Archwood Exchange, a Buy Black Marketplace, began as the solution to that problem in 2016. Nervis started Archwood to facilitate community gatherings and to support Black-owned businesses. Since its inception, Archwood has hosted over 100 events, helped launch dozens of new businesses, and created over 20 local jobs.

Despite its success, Archwood still did not represent that third space Nervis was looking for. As a marketplace, Nervis felt they were shutting people out who couldn't spend money on non-essential items.

Ali Nervis, owner of Grassrootz Books & Juice Bar in Phoenix on Feb. 29, 2024.
Ali Nervis, owner of Grassrootz Books & Juice Bar in Phoenix on Feb. 29, 2024.

“If you’re not in a position to buy, sometimes it feels unwelcome," he said. “We need to create more true community spaces where you can come, you can play chess, you can read, you can hang out and you can have a conversation without feeling like you’re not adding value because you’re not spending money.”

Around this time, a community member approached Nervis with the idea of opening up a bookstore-cafe and the idea for Grassrootz was born.

“We wanted to create a space that was safe for the entire community that was devoted to education," Nervis said.

A storefront location opened up near Archwood and Nervis began operating Grassrootz out of a small office space in the Afri-Soul Marketplace in downtown Phoenix.

2 bookshelves and 'unprecedented times'

Grassrootz officially opened in September 2019, operating in a small office space with one bookshelf from Nervis's own home and one he bought from a bookstore that was shutting down. The books lining the shelves were either bought from Goodwill or, to his wife's dismay, carted in from their home library.

“I wouldn’t even call it inventory when we first started," Nervis said. "It was mostly books that I liked to read."

The business grew in the following months, and in January 2020, Nervis moved the store to its current location in the Eastlake Park district.

Eastlake Park, located near 16th and Jefferson streets and considered the oldest park in the city, became the "focal point" of black history in Phoenix, according to the city's website.

The park was an important gathering place during decades of segregation when blacks were not welcome in other areas, generally north of Van Buren Street, and forced to attend segregated schools.

“There’s so much history here," Nervis said. “I’ve been passionate about this area for a long time. Having an opportunity to have a business here is incredible because Eastlake is a historic Black district.”

With a new storefront, more furniture, an expanding inventory and a kitchen space they would later turn into a cafe, things were looking good for Grassrootz.

That was until Covid hit, and like so many other businesses, Grassrootz had to close its doors to the public.

With no website, barely any social media presence and only operating a few days a week, the small-scale business was at risk of going under. The months that followed, however, would launch Grassrootz onto the national stage.

Amid worldwide Black Lives Matter protests that took place after the death of George Floyd in March 2020, movements popped up across the country calling on people to support Black-owned businesses and to educate themselves on Black history.

Being the only Black-owned bookstore in Arizona at the time, Grassrootz was at the top of the list on multiple websites telling readers where to buy their books. In two days, the store received almost 100 online orders for "White Fragility: Why it's so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" by Robin DiAngelo.

It took time for the small business to adjust to the influx of demands, but Nervis noted that the support the bookstore received from online attention was pivotal.

Future plans: More than a bookstore

Expanding Grassrootz into community investment and transforming it into a worker-owned entity are two goals he has for the business in the coming years.

Nervis said his long-term vision involves a business-community ecosystem in which Grassrootz can invest in local movement organizations that help solve community issues. Community members and movement organizations could also share some type of ownership of the business, similar to its worker-owner model.

The business runs on partial worker ownership, while more managerial tasks aren't shared by all employees, Nervis said.

Converting to a completely worker-owner entity would help financially support employees in addition to their wages and would grant them decision-making power. As for that process, Nervis said figuring out how to make the shift will be a "fun and interesting challenge."

There's still a lot of work to do, according to the business owner, but he's already seeing the fruits of his efforts to bring the community together in small ways. To find this fostered connection, look no further than Nervis's favorite store event: an open chess tournament held every Sunday.

“You’ll come in, and you’ll see a 9-year-old across the table from an 80-year-old. They’re engaging, having fun, and learning, and each one is teaching the other one something. It’s a true sense of community," he said. "To see that in this space after struggling to try and figure this whole thing out for the last couple of years is extremely rewarding.”

In less than ten years, Nervis has thoughtfully used his ambitions to serve the people around him and has made even bigger plans for the upward mobility of his community. Inspired by words from his favorite book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" by Martin Luther King Jr., Nervis understood what was necessary to get him where he is today.

In the soft spoken words of a small business owner, it takes courage, love and honesty to overcome oppression.

Reach Republic breaking news reporter Kira Caspers at kcaspers@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Ali Nervis dedicates Phoenix bookstore to serve his community