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Hidden Gems Literary Emporium: Removing Barriers to Books

5/15/2024

By Zoe Perzo

Kaila Boulware Sykes and Raymond Sykes are the owners of Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, a non-profit bookstore in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Though the Sykes have had their fair share of trials recently — losing the shop's physical space due to rising rent prices as well as a recent car accident — they're staying strong, looking for a new location, and continuing to chase their vision for the store. I sat down with Kaila to talk about the store’s origin, operation, and future. Kaila Boulware Sykes holds stacks of books.

Kaila and Raymond first met and exchanged numbers when they were in college at Rutgers.

“I texted him saying ‘I won’t forget you,” she laughed. “And then I never texted him [again]...”

A year later they unknowingly met up at a mutual friend’s house.

“I didn’t recognize him,” Kaila recalled. “I said, ‘Let me get your number.’ I put his number in, and saw this message that said ‘I won’t forget you’ from over a year ago. We’ve been inseparable ever since.”

Though they were both bookish people, they hadn’t always planned on opening a bookshop together. Instead, the inspiration for Hidden Gems Literary Emporium was born from an unpleasant experience.

“One day, when our son was around one year old, we took him to a bookstore in Ocean City. We took him to this specific store because it was just massive. But, when we went in…we just didn’t feel welcome at all.”

Employees had kept a close eye on the couple, with one cashier even calling back to the manager. The family left that store feeling dejected.

“We started praying,” Kaila continued, “and we asked for an opportunity to have a bookstore where everyone would be welcomed. We said we’ll make the books affordable — we will even make them free!”

They started work on Hidden Gems Literary Emporium immediately, and opened the store not five weeks later. The store’s grand opening in 2021 included several performers, and every attendee left with a free book. It drew more than 500 people, and the city had to shut down the street.

“That was really the first time we realized Hidden Gems was not only going to be something great, but that it was something people needed,” Kaila said. 

Hidden Gems Literary Emporium is a family-run shop, with Kaila taking the lead on communications. You’ll see her in all of the organization's photos and videos, which are filmed and edited by her husband. If Kaila is giving a presentation, you’ll find Raymond nearby with the camera. Even the kids, Truth and Wisdom, are an integral part of the team, though they are both still young. Kaila Sykes and her two children, Truth and Wisdom.

Today Hidden Gems Literary Emporium is an entirely donation-based non-profit, and every book is free.

“We never withhold books because of lack of funds,” Kaila explained. “We do have recommended donations of $5 for soft covers and $10 for hard covers, but if you come in with $1, you can leave with books.”

With today’s inflation making it harder than ever for some families to afford basics, Kaila is determined to help remove this barrier wherever she can. She said she doesn’t want parents in her area to have to choose between putting gas in the car or giving their child a book.

Despite never requiring payment for the books, Kaila said the store’s mission resonates with a lot of her customers, and many are happy to give the recommended donation or more. 

Aside from giving books out in-store (more on that later), the Sykes spend a lot of time out in the community.

One of their annual events is the nationwide 1,000 Free Books Tour, where they pack up a bunch of books and travel across the country, giving them to readers for free. 

“We know that everyone can’t get to New Brunswick or New Jersey. And a lot of times, when it comes to education or motivating people, you have to meet them [where they are]. Sometimes literally in their backyard.” Kaila laughed, “But it’s the experience that people will remember.”

They’re also helping to build a library for the New York Middle School for Art and Philosophy, a school which hasn’t had a library in over twenty years. Though that project is still in progress, Kaila has already been contacted by another school in a similar position, and of course she agreed to help.

“We never say no to anyone. That’s just our model.”

Though the store is currently without a home, operations have continued with appearances at events, online sales, and work on their projects. 

“What does it look like right now? It’s a lot of books all over the house.” Kaila laughed. “But the good thing is when one door closes, another one opens. The amount of people who have reached out…”

Kaila picked up James Patterson’s The Secret Lives of Booksellers and Librarians from a nearby pile.

“This book came into my hands at the perfect moment in time. We were in Cincinnati, Ohio, at Winter Institute, and we were telling people about our situation. Booksellers from around the world told us about the struggles that they overcame, and they were telling us that we’re gonna make it.”

“I thought that we would have to convince people to fall back in love with reading,” Kaila admitted, “but [now] I think that people do still love to read. We just live in such a distracted world. But education can save your life, if you let it.

“So for all the booksellers out there — librarians, teachers, book lovers — I want to thank everyone. We are the underrated superheroes of the world. I just want to encourage everyone to keep doing what you're doing. Let’s keep working together.”

You can visit Hidden Gems Literary Emporium online at their website, TikTok, Instagram, or Facebook. If you’d like to support them as they look for a new location, you can donate to their GoFundMe or find them on Bookshop.org