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Beloved bookstore gets new life with community focus

Dr. Jungmiwha Bullock plans a new identity for an enduring downtown favorite beyond a new coat of paint.

Dr. Jungmiwha Bullock in front of Downtowne Bookstore (Ken Crawford).

Taking over an enduring and well-loved business is a tricky endeavor. You have to balance respect for the community that emerges around an institution with the belief in your ideas to make it even better. The Downtowne Bookstore had been tucked away in the alley behind the Mission Inn Annex for over four decades. It showed the dusty patina that old bookstores should have: dusty shelves, creaky floors, faded pages, and the romance of something that shows its age and still thrives. 

Dr. Jungmiwha Bullock, a relative newcomer to town, didn’t plan on buying a bookstore. She had never owned a brick-and-mortar store. She was charmed by the space, the history, and the fact that women had always owned the bookstore. Most importantly, it was for sale. Other people had made offers for the store, but no one else wanted to keep selling books there. Sometimes, things line up in a way that can’t be ignored, and she bought the shop.  

Dr. Bullock has owned the Downtowne Bookstore since April. She spent the first few months learning the business with the old owner as an employee. She took on managing the bookstore in July and has put a lot into making the store into something that she hopes will endure for several more decades.

Dr. Bullock does many things outside the store, but books have a special place in her life. I asked her what book hooked her and fostered her passion. It took her a second. The gears had to grind a bit before she confidently stated, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor. She said she felt a solid connection to Cassie, the protagonist, and related to her being a person of color who didn’t have much, and like Cassie, Dr. Bullock found strength in her family. She was introduced to the book by her elementary school librarian, Penny Parker. Her relationship with the librarian and the book lasted through to adulthood. Her affinity for the book, however, goes beyond the pages. 

Sometimes objects take on a magical role in our lives, and Dr. Bullock has a sticky-sweet, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, Rom-Com type of story about Roll of Thunder…. On an early date with her now husband, renowned artist and illustrator Kadir Nelson, she had an unexpected encounter with the book. They had taken a bike ride and stopped at a cafe. Nelson pulled a copy of “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” from his bike bag. Initially, Dr. Bullock thought he had seen a social media post about her love for the book and had brought a copy to impress her. She was taken aback by the gesture. She asked Kadir about the book, and he told her that he had received a commission to create a new cover to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first publication. 

It doesn’t end there. Penny Parker, the elementary school librarian who started this, had retired from education and become a minister. She officiated the wedding of Dr. Jungmiwha Bullock and Kadir Nelson, who are still married. Roll credits.

Dr. Bullock has already made her mark on the bookstore. A coat of white paint, new signage, branded merchandise, and a display of rare and collectible books are all excellent additions, but she is only getting started. Dr. Bullock plans to reopen the long-shuttered basement as a community space, with meeting areas and a podcast studio. The Downtowne Bookstore hosted the Congressional Art Competition Showcase on April 25, and the plan is to make community events an integral part of the business. The Downtowne Bookstore is at 3582 Main Street. Their Instagram account is informative and updated regularly.