By Haley Wilson
The Birmingham Times
The sound of jazz music. The smell of freshly brewed coffee. The sight of brightly colored walls with bookshelves filled with of African American authors. These sounds, smells, and sights welcome visitors who enter Homecoming Coffee and Books in Ensley.
This is the atmosphere Yvette Chatman, owner of the quaint bookstore, has crafted for anyone who has a love of the written word.
“I want to provide a space for Black authors,” she said. “I have 97 African American authors in the store. This is a place for the community to come and talk. I also offer African fabrics, jewelry, plants, and pastries, such as bean pies and pound cakes from local chefs.”
As a mother of three and an author of three books, Chatman knows what it’s like to sell your own books and have readers.
“Oftentimes it can be hard to make a profit off of [the web] or other markets like that, … so having Black authors bring their books to me is the way I want to serve the community and help people,” said Chatman, who also serves the community through her own writing.
“I chose children’s books because I think Black children need to see themselves in what they read,” she said. “It’s important to know who you are and know who you are early. I’m a believer in building self-esteem, and the knowledge of the history of who you are is the foundation for that.”
Chatman, who retired from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) in 2018, opened her current location at B Elite Suites (3112 Ensley Five Points West Avenue) in February 2021.
“People have thanked me for providing a place where they can just sit and breathe,” said Chatman, 66, of Bush Hills. “I think people need to be taken care of.”
The author and businesswoman is founder of the Birmingham chapter of the National Hook-Up of Black Women, which was established in 2014 to empower women and families through health, wellness, and literacy services. The group also provides information on domestic violence, participates in summer feeding programs, hosts teen summits, and offers free classes in yoga and sewing.
Young Community Servant
Chatman was born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and raised with eight siblings, including her twin sister, Yvonne. The family moved to Illinois when her father, who was in the military, relocated.
“I did grow up during the Civil Rights era,” she said. “For us in Illinois, it was a little different than it was here in Birmingham. Birmingham to me was more so concerned about Civil Rights, and [in Illinois] we were more so involved with being activists in our particular communities.”
At age 13, Chatman joined the Black Panther Party, a political organization founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
“I started noticing that my older brother would go off to [Black Panther Party] meetings, and I would wait at home for him to get back,” she said. “I was a curious little thing, and I pretty much asked my brother if I could go with him.”
From that point, Chatman got involved with the group, making protest signs, helping with the Free Breakfast for School Children Program, and writing for its newspaper.
“I’ve always been a lover of writing,” she said. “I remember being in a [party] meeting and they needed writers for the paper, [the Vanguard], and I wanted to do it. I would pretty much interview people and take their pictures and things like that.”
Chatman’s tenure with the Black Panther Party came to an end after she was arrested.
“I ended up spending seven days in jail during my freshman year of high school,” she said. “My mother didn’t know the extent to which I was involved and, of course, the jail time concerned her, … so she didn’t really want me involved as much.”
“Looking back at the time, the experience definitely shaped me into who I am,” Chatman continued. “I am aware of my Blackness, what it means to be Black, and how to serve your community in an impactful way. But now that I’m older, I see the concerns that my mother had because I was literally 13 years old at meetings where the doors would be protected by a sergeant-at-arms with guns. … I was experiencing real ‘big kid’ stuff at a really young age.”
During Chatman’s sophomore year of high school, her parents sent her to live with family in Ohio.
“My mother’s twin sister lived there, and I believed that [my mother] believed it would be best if I stayed with her.”
Chatman graduated from high school in 1974 and earned an associate degree in early childhood education in 1978 from Black Hawk College in Moline, Illinois. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in counseling foundation from Samford University in 2002.
“Engager, Not an Activist”
Chatman, who has family in Jasper, Alabama, moved to Birmingham in 1989. “My mother is originally from Jasper, [and] I wanted to find something different in my job field. … I was around 30, had my two children, who were 11 and 4 at the time, and a lot of my family already lived in Alabama.”
After working for 12 years as a child care director with Wee Care Academy Inc. in Birmingham, Chatman then took a position as an education assistant and curriculum and program events manager for the BCRI in 2000.
“I really enjoyed my time at the [BCRI] before my retirement from there,” she said. “It was the perfect place for me to be at the time. I often get labeled as an activist, but I’d rather be called an engager because that’s my true superpower.”
Homecoming Coffee and Books is located at B Elite Suites (3112 Ensley Five Points W. Ave., Birmingham, AL 35208). Hours of operation are Tuesday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/HomecomingBooksBham/.
Updated at 12:02 p.m. on 4/7/2022 to correct educational degree