As African American studies information specialist and the manager of the Black Cultural Center Library at Purdue University, IN, Jamillah Gabriel has a strong interest in African American culture and writing. She also just likes a good book. When she realized that there weren’t many book box subscription services that focused on African American literature—and those that did were targeted to children and young adults—she decided to start her own. In summer 2016 Gabriel launched Call Number, a monthly literature subscription box for adults featuring works by non-bestselling black authors. LJ caught up with her in between her library and box-packing duties.
LJ: What inspired you to start Call Number?
Jamillah Gabriel: I came across a book box for black children’s literature. I thought it would be great for my niece, who is seven years old. That was the impetus—I thought, I wish there was something like this for adults. I looked a little bit to see if there was something out there, and there wasn’t. I started thinking, maybe it’s something I would be interested in starting, because I know that there would be a lot of people interested in having a service like that.
Subscription boxes are very popular, but [few] of them cater to African American literature. There are a couple that [feature] children’s literature, but no adult literature. So that’s where it all began. Once I decided, it happened kind of quickly.
How did you fund and develop the project?
I started with an Indiegogo campaign, and was able to get some initial funding through that. A lot of family and friends wanted to contribute—I had already started putting together the first box, which was a prototype, to see what that would look like. Then at Purdue there’s a department called the Foundry, for entrepreneurship, and it taps into faculty and staff as well as students who are developing things. I took a class with them to help guide the process.
I use a platform called Cratejoy—there are only a couple [of platforms] that cater to subscription businesses and Cratejoy was one of them—and they had decided to do a pilot for people who were just starting their boxes. So I was part of that program, and they helped guide us and give us resources for doing that pre-launch.
How do you choose the authors whose work you include, and what goes into the boxes along with the books?
[I choose] writers [who] don’t necessarily get promoted. There are some big name writers who are great, and I love them, but I also want to highlight some of the lesser known ones, the ones that get lost in the shuffle. With the publishing industry being what it is, it’s just not really that diverse. That’s another one of the reasons I wanted to start [Call Number], to bring notice to some of these writers.
First I select the book that I want to highlight, then I choose items that are related to the book. Typically, the boxes have four to five items. At least one of them is something that pays respect to a classic black author—Toni Morrison or Alice Walker, authors [who] have been around for a while, or older ones like Zora Neale Hurston. There’s usually an item that has a library motif to it. And then the other two or three items are directly related to things in the book. Because it’s called Call Number and it’s got a library feel to it, I include a card that talks about what’s in the box, and on the back side there’s a place for people to take notes on what they’ve read. It’s designed to look like a catalog card, but instead of the author’s name and the title of the book, it’s got a place for…whatever you want to write down, so it’s functional as well.
I get feedback from people about what they like, and they help me sometimes [by telling me] what they are looking for as well. So anytime I can incorporate that, I do. I’ve had a lot of good feedback because there isn’t anyone else in this space doing exactly what I’m doing.
Do you do all the packing and mailing yourself?
I have two friends who help now because it’s a lot of work, but yeah, we do it ourselves. I plan to keep going indefinitely. We’ll see how people take to it. So far I think it’s going well, and I’m hoping to get more people interested.
How does your academic work inform this project?
I work at the Black Cultural Center as well as within the university library—it’s a joint appointment. But most of my work is within the Black Cultural Center, and I also build the collection there. So African American literature is something that I’m working with every day, basically.
A lot of it is literature about the African diaspora, not only limited to African American literature. That’s one of the things that I want to highlight with Call Number also, authors that are not just African American, but those that have backgrounds from Africa and the Caribbean. Because all those literatures are not homogenous. It’s something I do on my job as far as what I’m ordering for the collection, something I really love to do. [As an] undergrad, I was a black studies major.
I do think that I’ll probably start a nonfiction subscription [service] at some point. A lot of the things that I order at Purdue are, because it’s an academic library, and I would like to tap into that as well. And then vice versa, I’m also ordering a little bit more fiction than I normally do for the library because of what I’m doing for Call Number. It goes both ways, that influence.
Your academic work and the Call Number project both have a mission of providing access. What was your experience, growing up, with being able to find books you could relate to?
I was raised by a single mother, so I probably would not have been able to subscribe to this service as a child, but it’s definitely something that I would have loved. I’ve always been an avid reader. I was the kid that would stay inside to read instead of going outside to play. So this is definitely my first love.
My reading tastes evolved as I got older and became more interested in black literature. It was hard to find in schools, and they [didn’t] teach you about it for the most part, so it was something I had to seek out on my own. Which I did, but everyone doesn’t do that. So having something like this, especially for children’s book subscriptions, is great, because you’ve got to get them early and give them that awareness of what’s out there. All children should have books that validate who they are. All people in general should have access to books that speak to your experiences. And mainstream literature neglects whole groups of people.
So that’s part of my motivation, because I know what it’s like to grow up without having those books at my disposal, and having to really go out and search for them myself. [Call Number] caters to people who are already readers and have some interest, but then it also, hopefully, gets the attention of those who may not have thought about reading African American literature and want to explore that too. Maybe they don’t know where to start, and this helps them kind of get a taste of what’s out there without them having to look for it themselves. This makes it easier and gives them access.
Is it difficult to balance both sides of your work life?
It is challenging, yeah, because right now [Call Number is] a solo kind of thing. As I grow we’ll see how that happens. It’s definitely not easy, but I know that people really appreciate what I put out, so that’s part of what makes it fun.
I know the kind of reader that I am and what I would enjoy, and I’m certain that I’m not alone in that. So I try to cater to those things that I know are missing, and that I would like to see as well.