Visiting Willa’s Books & Vinyl has a whole vibe. Owner Willa Robinson has created an ambiance that is bookishly cool.

The jazz music coming from the record player fills the space and sets a relaxed tone, without being subdued. It’s the perfect way to experience her store and browse the shelves – bobbing your head, singing along or popping your fingers to some Coltrane.

Ms. Willa’s presence is the icing on the cake. She is a student of history and Black history, specifically, and is warm, engaging and knowledgeable.

After a conversation with her, you will come away with two things:

·         A history lesson, and a book recommendation

If you come away feeling that you have learned something – you have. And you’re not alone. Robinson has a strong following of customers, fans and historians inside and outside the Kansas City community. She is a well-known and respected collector of African-American, African and world history books.

It’s the classics and historical books that attract many of her customers. Her store specializes in:

·         Gently used and rare African-American fiction and nonfiction books

·         Religious texts

·         Comic books

·         First editions

·         Vintage art

·         Vintage Jazz, blues and R&B records in 45, 78 and albums

·         Vintage magazines and more

According to Robinson, what you see in the store represents only a fraction of her extensive collection.

“When I started collecting books in the 1970s, I was looking for faith-based books in the Salvation Army bookstore,” she says. “As I browsed the shelves, I started seeing a lot of titles on African-American people and history. I bought the books, read them and added them to my [growing] collection.”

From Reader to Collector

Robinson is totally in her element among the books she loves. Her love affair with books and reading started when she was growing up in Happy Bend Township, outside Atkins, Arkansas. She became devoted to learning more about African-American history because the textbooks only presented Black people as slaves.

“I always knew our people were more than just slaves. I saw Black farmers and landowners thriving in our community of Happy Bend and everyone got along without incident,” she says.

As she got older, Robinson found herself drawn to collecting historical books and materials about African Americans and Africans.

“I was very specific about what I wanted,” she says. “And I wanted our stories.”

She is very passionate that our stories are widely shared and taught.

“Our stories are the story of civilization,” she says. “It is history that can’t be erased or watered down. We as a community can’t allow that to happen.”

As parents, grandparents and a community, Robinson urges us to educate ourselves about our history and insist that it be taught.

“It is going to be on us to make sure our children and their children know the truth about the history of our people.”

From Collector to Entrepreneur

How did Robinson’s collecting become a business?

When she realized her collection had gotten a little out of hand, Robinson decided to sell a few of her books. In the later part of her 31-year career at the post office, she started selling books in the post office lobby on her days off. 

From there, she started selling books as a street vendor, most often in the 18th & Vine District.   In 2007, she and a friend who collected African artifacts opened up a retail location. It was also on Troost Ave. That location lasted until 2012. In 2015, Robinson reopened in Location One, a high-rise location on 63rd Street, that was home to a large number of small Black-owned businesses. 

In spring 2021, when Location One’s new owner announced he was tearing down the building, Robinson found herself looking for a new location and the financial resources to move there.  She launched a GoFundMe Campaign and raised enough money to move and get established in her current, and perfectly suited, storefront at 5547 Troost Ave. 

Her new location allowed her the space to spread out. It’s big enough to allow for easy perusal of the shelfs, but just small enough to feel warm and inviting.    

Support for Willa and Others

Darren Fields is a dedicated and longtime Willa’s customer. His sister Tammie took him by the original store location “to look at some books” and he has supported the store ever since.

Fields, a retired firefighter and current educator, was on his own quest to learn more about the African-American experience. He found a fellow traveler in Ms. Willa.

“I’ve learned so much from her,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about sundown towns or about the period that followed Reconstruction. Didn’t know about Black Wall Street, either.”

Ms. Willa has helped steer him to books where he could continue to learn more. Last school year, Fields invited her to his school to speak to students.

“I’m just such a fan of hers and the kids loved her,” Fields says with a smile.

His voice takes a passionate tone, though, as he stresses the need to support independent Black bookstores like Willa’s Books & Vinyl. “Her store has been in the community a long time and I am happy to see other Black-owned bookstores opening in Kansas City,” he said. “To keep them open, we need to give them our full support.”

Where to find Willa’s Books & Vinyl

The store is located at:

5547 Troost Ave., KCMO
Hours: Tue.-Sat. noon to 5 p.m.

KC’s Other Black-Owned Independent Bookstores

104 ½ W. 39th St., KCMO
Hours: Wed.-Sat. noon to 5 p.m.
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Bliss Books & Wine
3902 Gillham Rd., KCMO
Hours: Wed. noon to 7 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat. noon to 8 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
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