From sustainable goods to books, these local Kalamazoo businesses have affordable options that you can’t find anywhere else

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Credit: Jessica Thompson, John Wegner

(Top) The subtle comparison between the bright yellow of the Bee Joyful logo against the soft gray of the building has an inviting and comforting effect on potential customers. (Bottom) The two buildings which combine to create Kazoo Books are connected by the familiar black, white, and red logo.

Chloe Rathbun, News Editor

The city of Kalamazoo is the proud home of many small businesses and entrepreneurs who create unique shopping experiences for their customers.

During the early days of the pandemic, there was a nationwide “shop local” movement to support struggling small businesses, many of whom couldn’t keep up with the severe economic recession. 

In 2021, as the pandemic has slowed down, local business owners have noticed that drive to shop locally has diminished, even though the businesses still struggle. Whether it be on the Kalamazoo Mall, or elsewhere, small businesses are always in need of customers. 

Kalamazoo boasts a wide range of products produced by small businesses ripe for customers to explore and celebrate. The Kalamazoo Mall is the home of many fond memories for Kalamazoo citizens. Whether it be walking down the brick streets with your family or pushing your face against the glass displays of stores, most people from Kalamazoo have walked the mall in their lives.

 

The store that makes low-waste living convenient and affordable 

On the mall, just across the street from the beloved Taco Bob’s, is the yellow-sunshine of the Bee Joyful Shop. In white curling handwriting the words “Eco-Responsible Product” and “A Zero Waste Shop” are drawn out on the windows of the establishment. The bee themed sign jumps out at you like a warm smile as you walk into the store.

You may see Jessica Thompson, the owner and creator of her own brand, working behind the register and greeting customers. Thompson has carefully curated the Bee Joyful Shop into her own safe haven of affordable and ecologically friendly merchandise, often creating bee-themed products. 

“We’re Michigan’s first zero-waste and refill shop, so we love that it’s a unique shopping experience for people. They can kind of get all of their eco-friendly products that they are looking for in one spot,” said Thompson.

Bee Joyful sells a plethora of different items, from their first product that were food wraps, to all your laundry needs.

“We have the bee-dryer balls and everyone goes mad over those,” Thompson said as she motioned towards the shelf with a chalkboard sign hanging over that reads, “Laundry”.

On the middle rung are the customer favorite of bee-themed dryer balls. The shelves in Bee Joyful stay within Thompson’s clear bee aesthetic, making something as simple as laundry seem exciting again. (Credit: Chloe Rathbun)

Dryer balls are a tool for drying clothes that have been used for a long time. According to Clean Cult, in the drying cycle the dryer balls move in between the close to help promote faster drying and by agitating the fabrics allows your laundry to come out softer than they went in. 

An important part of the “ecologically friendly” brand is making sure that the items Bee Joyful Shop sells are genuinely healthier for their customers and the environment. A normal household item, like a dryer sheet, has so much more impact on people and the environment than the average consumer realizes.

“Dryer sheets are just so bad for humans. They have carcinogens and they’re plastic and they’re just a multitude of bad things. Our dryer balls are just so much better,” said Thompson. 

The NIH defines carcinogens as something that has been shown to cause cancer in humans. In our society, we interact with carcinogens far more than we realize, even in a seemingly harmless dryer sheet.

Not only are carcinogens bad for people, plastic use is a major stressor on the environment. In 2018, the EPA recorded over twenty-seven million tons of plastic being dumped into landfills. It takes plastics over four-hundred years to decompose, and while plastics are sitting in landfills, they release a wide range of unnatural chemicals that further damage the environment. 

The Bee Joyful shop takes it one step further to avoid plastic use, foregoing the plastic bags and packaging that are most commonly used in stores, instead encouraging their customers to bring in their own containers.

Customers bring in their own glass jars, or buy some from a shelf on the other side of the store and refill on some basic necessities. This is another fan-favorite due to its simplicity and the basic needs it addresses like conditioner, shampoo, and face wash. (Credit: Chloe Rathbun)

Affordability is another crucial pillar of Thompson’s  business.

“They are [our products] also very affordable compared to other places,” Thompson said. “We’re selling things as affordable as we possibly can to make these items accessible to people.”

Most people on their journey to shopping sustainably have probably noticed how expensive it can be: Thompson did too.

“I wanted to make some of these [eco-friendly] changes and I couldn’t afford anything. Not only did I have eco-guilt of ‘oh my gosh all of [these] things that we’re using’, but I had mom-guilt on top of that. I couldn’t provide better products for my family because it was too expensive, and I was on such a tight budget,” said Thompson.

“Eco-guilt” is a phrase that has been coined in environmentally conscious circles to describe the anxiety that people of today get when they feel the seemingly “impending doom” of the environmental crisis, normally regarding their choices and actions that aren’t environmentally friendly. 

When she was starting her business, Thompson was a single-mother of five who didn’t have much support in raising her children. 

“I want people to walk in here and not feel bad that they can’t afford something for themselves and for their family,” Thompson said.

“I want people to walk in here and not feel bad that they can’t afford something for themselves and for their family””

— Jessica Thompson

Shopping locally has many benefits for the environment and your community. By making the choice to spend your hard earned money at a shop such as Bee Joyful instead of a chain store like Meijer for your cleaning needs, you put money back into your community and help bring jobs back into your area. 

 

Your one-stop-shop for old and new literature and community engagement

Across town, on the south side of Kalamazoo on Parkview Avenue, sits Kazoo Books. This bookstore is a favorite for ardent readers and people who live in the Winchell and Oakwood neighborhoods. 

Kazoo Books was founded over thirty years ago by businesswoman Gloria Tiller and has since become a staple in Kalamazoo’s literary community. 

“I was doing sales when I was younger and I wanted to start something from scratch, so I started this thirty-three years ago from nothing. I loved books. I was a reader and I wanted to have a retail business,” said Tiller. 

Tiller had a passion not only for reading, but also for business. Upon opening Kazoo Books, she was new to the world of book retail. Her business prospered because of her innate attention to detail and openness to learning. 

“I was only going to do used books, but the more I got into it and the longer I was in business, I then learned the business and found out that there were all different kinds of books. There were new books, used books, collectable books, signed books, first edition books.” Tiller said. 

Since she was so new to the business of book-selling, Tiller had to be crafty and learn her business as it grew. 

As Tiller’s business grew and grew, she hired a tight-knit staff who has really made the store what it is today. 

Her book-loving staff spends a lot of time recommending books to questioning customers and they all seem to share the same interests.

“My staff loves the sci-fi fantasy genre, so when someone comes in, they’re more likely to recommend sci-fi,” said Tiller.  “Through the years, they’ve been here long enough that the customers that come in know that they know these books, so we sell a lot of sci-fi because the staff knows it.”

Although not a science fiction fan, Tiller enjoys many books such as mystery and often recommends those to inquiring customers. An important aspect of reading for her is how it makes her feel, which is best expressed in her absolute favorite book, “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand.

“It’s a classic… I read it in high school and it’s about a strong woman who’s trying to save her business. It’s utopian, it was written by a Russian socialist, and it’s a love story,” Tiller said. 

“I read it again after I got out of college, and I read it again a few years later. And in the last few years, it became almost a cult-classic. It’s out there as a must-read for the younger generation. It’s just going to be around forever. I get a lot of strength when I read it,” said Tiller. 

In the colder months, the staff of Kazoo Books turn on the fireplace, setting a warm and comforting atmosphere for their customers. There are two chairs open for settling down by the fire and letting yourself get lost in a novel. (Credit: John Wegner)

Kazoo Books has such a clear personality, from the ramp entrance on Book Alley to the fireplace that roars in the winter and cozy chairs. 

“We’re called a destination store, meaning that we’re not in a mall and people actually have to drive to get to us. A destination store has to offer more than a person just walking by. We have to make you want to stop,” Tiller said.

Kazoo Books does just that, with the curious multiple-buildings and seemingly endless rows of shelves stuffed full of old and new books that entice long-time readers. 

“We have the coffee pot on, and on Saturdays we have the cat here. We have to offer something unique for that customer. And that’s what we’ve tried to do with this store, offer that uniqueness, that blend of new and used, and all the different rooms that make us a little different than your big-chain bookstore,” said Tiller.

On Saturdays, customers can pet and enjoy Radio’s calming presence in Kazoo Books. He loves to snuggle up by the fireplace and follow customers around the store. (Credit: John Wegner)

Although it may be tempting to step inside the easy world of chain bookstores or even large grocery stores such as Target, who boast a shelf or two of books, the eclectic personality of Kazoo Books is worth the extra work. 

According to Lowkel, shopping locally decreases your carbon footprint. When reducing your shopping to small businesses in your city, you decrease your “goods mileage” which is the amount of resources that it takes to ship products to you. By simply spending money at local businesses, you help reduce your carbon footprint which helps the environment. 

Although small businesses may be more expensive than stores that are built solely for your convenience, shopping locally gives back to your community. The benefits outweigh the costs.