Photo courtesy of The Key
By Jaclyn Wilson
Inspired by the intimate interactions she had with booksellers as a conference attendee, Hartford, Connecticut resident and UCONN grad Khamani Harrison created The Key Bookstore in 2018. The Key is an Afrocentric mobile and online bookstore with carefully curated book lists focused on African American history, environmentalism, entrepreneurship, and spirituality. Harrison calls these subjects the four pillars of her business, using each as a guide when building a list of books. “Curation,” Harrison explains, “is everything.”
Photo by Angel Thompson Photography
Her booming business and thriving online community prove Harrison knows exactly what readers want. Harrison notes, “Some bookstores are missing the connection to the soul of a book reader.” Armed with that knowledge and dialed into the desires of readers like herself and her friends and neighbors, when she first began bookselling in 2018 Harrison would set up her mobile bookstore at community events, festivals, open mic nights, and pop up events, bringing knowledge right to the community, and providing books intended to enrich their lives.
By building a dynamic, interactive space for online reader discussion, Harrison is filling the void left by traditional brick-and-mortar booksellers—a void that is filled when a reader is able to go online and interact with others who have also just read the same book and want to discuss the book’s content, pose questions, talk about their favorite parts, or get clarification.
Like all businesses, Harrison’s has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting shut down, and is currently operating exclusively online at keybookstore.com. During the pandemic and since Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, Harrison’s business has “exploded.”
Harrison explains, “People are looking for answers to take action with…the marches have led people to ask themselves ‘what do I need to know, how can I learn it, and where do I get it from?' The answer to that has been Black-owned bookstores like The Key.” Harrison also notes that part of the explosion of orders and subscriptions she’s seen is also due to The Key’s “White Ally Book List” that went viral on Twitter 10 days after George Floyd’s death, and was then picked up by Buzzfeed.
Photo by Angel Thompson Photography
“People are looking for answers to take action…the marches have led people to ask themselves ‘what do I need to know, how can I learn it, and where do I get it from?' The answer to that has been Black-owned bookstores like The Key.”
Photo courtesy of The Key
Harrison includes White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo on the “White Ally Book List” and notes that it is currently her best-selling title. A New York Times bestseller as well, White Fragility explores how the reactions of White people when confronted with issues of race can ultimately serve to maintain racial inequality. Other titles on the “White Ally Book List” include the most lauded and celebrated Black voices of our time, such as The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
They Key also offers other insightful book lists about the Black experience, such as Black365, which includes titles like Survival Strategies for Africans in America by Anthony Browder, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B DuBois, while the Black History 101 book list recommends The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Narrative of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, and The African Origin of Civilization by Cheikh Anta Diop, now in its 30th printing.
No matter what readers may set out to learn, the book lists curated by The Key offer readers sophisticated recommendations and a dynamic online community with whom they can discover these books, and perhaps a new perspective on life.
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By Kerry Kincy
Yes, it’s Capital with an “a” and no, it’s not a spelling error (for all our "Grammarly grammars" out there…LOL). Even though Capital Ice Cream is located on Capitol Avenue and is just two blocks from the state Capitol Building, the owners envisioned opening a place that was reflective of the beauty, positivity and diversity of the people of the capital of Connecticut—Hartford. That said, they take great pride on being affectionately referred to as the “The Happy Place in Hartford”. Chantell Kelly, who co-owns this sweet little magical place with her husband Shane, says she gets asked that question about the spelling a lot. According to Kelly, it was intentional—because when you dream you’re supposed to dream big! We hope to expand throughout the city of Hartford and beyond!
Kelly and her husband are Hartford residents. They saw a need in their community and decided to fill it.
As a Kindergarten teacher, Kelly’s students would always share stories of going to far away places to have ice cream. As a parent, she would also take her own children beyond city lines into West Hartford and other towns for ice cream. Always aspiring to open a community business, she and her husband thought how nice it would be to open an ice cream shop that local children and families could enjoy and be proud of right in their own neighborhood.
Voila! Dreams can come true if you only just believe.
She believes her little shop, with more time and resources, can be recreated in many towns across the state.
On an otherwise invisible strip just beyond the Bushnell Performing Arts Center and before the once famous Capitol Records—another hidden gem that for years stored and sold albums that would delight only the serious of vinyl collectors—this jewel is worth “the dig.” I mean, what’s more exciting than finding a hidden gem? Capital Ice Cream is definitely a treasure—glimmering and sparkling with happiness.
“I love that little brown girls and boys come inside and see someone that looks like them, that I can be a role model...It feels good being able to nourish their ideas of self and help them to see in real time, that they too can achieve anything they put their heart into.”
As soon as I walked up to the building I was taken back to my childhood when the biggest problems in the world were what flavor of ice cream to choose. Although only about 250 square feet of frontage and maybe 250 square feet more inside, the rainbow of colors all over the shop is a feast in and of itself for the eyes. Handmade tulle cones stacked high upon each other in the window complement and offer a preview of what lies ahead and colorful umbrellas and metal stools circle the outdoor tables.
I learned that Kelly enlisted the help of local artists and nearby University of Hartford art students to create the detailed menu artwork on the walls. Capital Ice Cream’s staff only adds to the brightness that emanates from this tiny shop.
The sign on the door instructed that only three customers were allowed inside at a time. However, I think even if current times didn’t require six feet of space, any more than three feet would not provide the space needed to peruse the choices that the colorful menu just above eye level displayed. I was thrilled to be able to take it all in slowly. Just being inside Capital Ice Cream is its own enchanting experience.
As I scanned the menu, my eyes settled in and focused on the Kindness Cones. This gentle reminder in selflessness encapsulates exactly what Kelly’s intentions are and why she chose this particular location for her shop. Customers are invited to purchase a kindness cone at a discounted rate and leave a handwritten note on a paper cut out to “pay it forward.”
“So often children from the neighborhood stop and peek into the shop, sometimes just wanting to say hello, simply curious, and sometimes humbly ask for a cup of water,” shared Kelly. “The cones are for these children and families that come, sometimes ordering two cones for a family of five to share.”
We can all appreciate that not many families have extra income to purchase an ice cream cone. “Pay it forward” kindness spreads and is as delicious as the selection of Capital Ice Cream’s toppings. Of course, a Kindness Cone was included in my order and honestly, made my cone taste even better.
When creating her business model and wanting to offer top quality products, she realized the price point might fall outside the income levels of some families in the neighborhood, and rather than sacrifice quality and continue to maintain a successful business, this was a way to make her amazing ice cream accessible and available to everyone.
For those of us who cannot handle the speed at which this amazing “real” ice cream demands on a hot summer day, the cup and spoon “just in case” was a smart idea. I realized I couldn’t lick and hold another cone—and wear my mask simultaneously—so I quickly rushed outside to hand over my friend’s cone and sit down.
As I enjoyed my sweet treat, I watched as a little boy, maybe all of three years old, held tightly onto his cone as he and his dad were exiting. His eyes were filled with anticipation as he waited patiently to remove his mask to taste. I felt it deep in my heart: this new normal is not feeling normal at all.
Thankfully, Kelly and her sweet shop are helping create a place of comfort and inspiration despite these challenging times.
“I love that little brown girls and boys come inside and see someone that looks like them, that I can be a role model,” she said. “Both children and adults are surprised to learn that a Black woman owns this sweet little place. It feels good being able to nourish their ideas of self and help them to see in real time, that they too can achieve anything they put their heart into.”
Capital Ice Cream
389 Capitol Avenue
Hartford, CT 06016
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By Sarah Thompson
Surf’s up, right in the heart of Blue Back Square in West Hartford! Marked with a bright pop of blue on its exterior, Playa Bowls welcomes guests with a laid back vibe. Surfboards, egg chairs, murals of mermaids, flat screen TVs streaming surfing and extreme sports and even a cozy fireplace all combine to bring a bit of the beach right to this restaurant.
But, according to owner Mitch Jackson, what stands out the most is what he calls the best acai ever.
Jackson’s background is in corporate and private business, in the information technology space, so before taking the plunge in business ownership he knew it had to be good.
“I tried the product before I bought into it—and it’s the best I’ve ever had,” he shared. “The owners of this franchise have gone above and beyond sourcing just the right acai from Brazil. It’s blended with real cane sugar, no preservatives, and everything is all natural. It’s delicious!”
From bowls to smoothies and juices, Playa Bowls offers a colorful selection of inviting and unique offerings that are delicious and satisfying. Customers love the Nutella, Pura Vita and Electric Mermaid Bowls most. The best part? Everything is prepared fresh and right on the spot.
Playa Bowls West Hartford open its doors in November 2019. Friends since their college years at UCONN and having both grown up in the area, Jackson and co-owner Mike Bogdan had noticed an untapped opportunity to bring something new and fresh to West Hartford. Having been mutual acquaintances with the CEO of Playa Bowls—a franchise that began as a pair of blenders, a patio table, and a fridge that has flourished into over 83 stores, thousands of employees, and a mission to lead communities in healthy, sustainable living—they had a great place to start.
Jackson is also an agile specialist for Deloitte, so when the challenges of running a business come his way, he handles them with optimism and wisdom.
“When COVID hit, everything had to go to a standstill,” he explained. “Once we started getting more information about it, we were able to pivot. We had already had delivery with Grub Hub, Uber Eats and Door Dash, so that gave us a huge advantage, so people could order even though our doors were closed. We took a pretty decent hit and we were a bit concerned and worried like any business owner would be in February and March, but once people started to acclimate into the new style it was as if things were regular. We actually did better than we did when we were open.”
In fact, they adapted so well that their growth created new jobs and adding more hours.
"The customers love the product and the energy. We give them a place where they can just hang out and work on their laptops and do their homework or hang out with their kids, because we appeal to all ages, whether you’re eight months old or 80 years old."
“It was great to be able to say that we aren’t going to have to let anyone go and that we could still hire some other folks,” said Jackson.
When it comes to customer service, he says “there really isn’t a secret sauce. It starts with saying please, thank you, and smiling.”
Playa Bowls West Hartford is particular about who they hire and keep on staff, because they want to ensure that customers experience a positive energy the minute they walk through the doors.
“Everything starts from being polite to maintaining safety, and then it goes from there,” explained Jackson. “We preach safety in every way, making sure they are safe, wearing their masks properly, constantly washing their hands, and looking for things that are out of sorts with food or surfaces.”
The restaurant even has an app where customers can track their purchases to earn points for discounts or free bowls.
At the leadership level, Jackson says they try to bring a positive energy to their employees.
“It’s contagious. The customers love the product and the energy. We give them a place where they can just hang out and work on their laptops and do their homework or hang out with their kids, because we appeal to all ages, whether you’re eight months old or 80 years old,” he said.
And while Playa Bowls is new to West Hartford, they have made a commitment to give back in any way they can. “We think it’s important to give back to the people who put trust in you, the customers,” shared Jackson.
Through Dine-to-Donate, they’ve been able to work with various local organizations and causes to give back a portion of their proceeds, including supporting a senior dance concert for University of Hartford students and holding a Best Buddies fundraiser to support local students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Jackson also believes their employees should represent the people in the community and that being on the Playa Bowls team means being part of a family.
“We have a multitude of different backgrounds and representation, including a minority owner. When there were Black Lives Matter rallies and protests, one of our employees spoke at one. We allowed other employees to wear BLM shirts and speak out on social media about it. We highly encourage it. I sat down with every employee and told them that if there was anything that they were struggling with that we are here as a family – not just as owners or managers or shift leaders, but as a family to talk about this and grow through this and learn from each other. We’re all in,” he shared.
Playa Bowls is located at 51 Memorial Road, West Hartford, Connecticut. They are open 8:00am-9:00pm during the summer and 8:00am-8:00pm during other seasons. Learn more or browse the menu of acai, pitaya, coconut, green, chia, banana, and oatmeal bowls, and their huge variety of smoothies and juices at: https://www.playabowls.com/.
Click here to connect to Playa Bowls West Hartford on Facebook.
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