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Scene in South Bend: The Brain Lair Bookstore

| Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Claire Kopischke | The Observer

The Brain Lair. It’s an anagram for librarian and a fitting name for Kathy Burnette’s bookstore, located just five minutes from campus.

Before opening Brain Lair Books, Burnette held positions as a librarian in local elementary and middle schools for almost 20 years.

“I’ve always wanted to open a bookstore,” Burnette said. “I visited some bookstores, talked to some bookstore owners, joined the American Booksellers Association about 20 years ago now.”

But the timing wasn’t right.

Then, a librarian position opened at Discovery Middle School in Granger, Indiana.

“I’ll just pretend like this library is a bookstore. I’ll try out my ideas and see if it works,” Burnette said.

Running a bookstore is quite different from running a library, but aspects of Burnette’s former life influence how she operates Brain Lair.

At the library Burnette saw it as part of her job to “convince [students and teachers] that reading could be fun and interesting.”

“I feel like a lot of librarians don’t read the books that they’re telling kids about,” she said. “That’s why kids stop reading. You’re not telling them anything interesting.”

That’s part of the reason why Burnette herself reads almost every book that makes its way onto the shelves at Brain Lair. Brain Lair not only features books that people want to and have fun reading, but Burnette also focuses on providing inclusive literature on the shelves of her store.

She cites Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” as her inspiration to do so.

“I saw [the TED Talk] a million years ago at Discovery,” she said. “That’s when I really started paying attention to what I was buying and what I was connecting kids with. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term windows and mirrors. There are window books, where you’re looking out to see what the world is like, and there are mirror books that reflect something that is happening with you. It is damaging to your psyche [not to see yourself reflected in books]. You can’t figure out how you fit in in this world, and you have a limited idea of the possibilities of what you can do to contribute to society.”

That’s part of the reason why she uses the word inclusive.

“Diversity seems like diverse from, and I think that’s more divisive to me than inclusive,” she said. “Inclusive means we want to see everybody reflected — not just one person but everybody.”

And Brain Lair isn’t just inclusive in the sense that it sells books that accurately reflect the world we live in, but it caters to readers of all ages and tastes. Brain Lair has adult, young adult and children’s books — a change from its earliest days.

“When I first opened, I didn’t even have adult books because I specialize in kid books,” Burnette said. “It’s a kid focused bookstore, but it’s not a kid bookstore. Everybody can read every level of book. It depends on how you approach it. … My goal is to be a place where people come and hang out and do things. I’m looking at developing activists because I feel like we need to save ourselves, and the way to do that is we need to come together and talk.”

Burnette hosts book clubs and discussion groups at Brain Lair in an effort to bring the community together. She also partners with small businesses, schools and organizations to host events and bring speakers to South Bend.

Most recently, Burnette worked with the St. Joseph County Public Library to bring New York Times bestselling children’s book author Kwame Alexander to South Bend. Students from 13 schools in the area attended the event at Saint Mary’s.

“[The kids in attendance] loved this book so much, and we were able to give every single kid who came a copy of the book,” Burnette said. “I want kids to see role models, but also that books can be fun.”

Burnette’s emphasis on fun is key to helping her create the readers — and the authors — of the future.

“Everybody has a story,” Burnette said. “Stories are the things that keep us together.”

Brain Lair Books is located at 714 E Jefferson Blvd. The shop is open on Sundays at noon to 4 p.m., Wednesdays through Fridays at 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. The Brain Lair is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.

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