Flagship Books celebrated its second anniversary in the historic Strawberry Hill district of Kansas City, Kansas, on January 27, 2024. Brothers Ty and Joel Melgren left a more residential block and moved uphill to their current storefront in April of 2023. The old downtown district of Kansas City, KS, with Strawberry Hill nearby, is perched on bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers. This once Central European neighborhood is enjoying a multi-national renaissance.
“Here, we’re in the heart of Strawberry Hill,” Ty explains.
Currently, at 510 N. 6th St., they enjoy steadier foot traffic, a third Friday Arts Walk, burgeoning and established businesses, and a busy Mexican restaurant across the street. Next door you can find a hairdresser, an auto body shop and a gym. The Strawberry Hill Neighborhood Association meets at Flagship, as does a monthly Big Open Book Club, where patrons “come and hang out and talk about books.” They are a neighborhood business and proud of it.
During the recent AWP#24 conference, Flagship hosted off-site readings for Indy and university presses, including three Canadian presses. In its short life it has offered book launches for several local authors and is scheduled to do another in early Spring of ’24 for veteran KC poet, Trish Reeves. A table to the left of the entrance features local authors. Indeed, its support of local writers is one of its great appeals.
What was once a grocery and bar in the 1950s later became a yoga studio and then a real estate agency. The pressed tin ceiling, the polished hardwood floors and brick walls are original.
Over five years ago, Joel Melgren joined the real estate agency that had offices in the space. When the space became available to rent, the brothers thought it fit their project: to build a business that was both fun and community-oriented. The space is modest, but deep and airy. Displays racks, shelving and tables are movable, and the arrangement was different each time I visited.
Joel is the financial half of the enterprise, the one originally interested in establishing a business. Ty, with a side-job as an ESL teacher, makes the literary choices, revealing wide-ranging taste. On a day I visited, among a selection of popular new books, I found Clare Keegan’s latest and Danny Caine’s updated How to Resist Amazon and Why, while Sarah Smarsh’s work appeared on the regional author table. A “small book” title by Wendell Berry, Think Little, sat on a wall shelf. Ty has developed an interested in physically “small books.”
In the center stands a tall multi-sided display of well-curated used books, both recent titles and classics. In the rear, beyond a settee and chairs, is the children’s section. An enormous map of Wyandotte County, KS, covers the north wall and was in place when the brothers moved in. On the north side, is a table for meetings or art activities. The wall behind the table is covered in a white board where, that day, a drawing of Strawberry Hill was displayed. Children are free to draw on the board. Flagship recently hosted a clay artist.
Ty points out the art work decorating both north and south brick walls: framed paintings by local Croatian artist Elaine Grisnik. Grisnik has been documenting Kansas/Missouri buildings for years. And on the central table displaying cards and stationery, puzzles and journals, Ty selects a postcard featuring work by Grisnik. The painting replicated on the card depicts Weiss Market and Bar, where Flagship Books now resides.
Strawberry Hill was settled in the late 1800s mostly by immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe: Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Poland, and Russia. The area is situated close to the West Bottoms of Kansas City, MO. Most of the newcomers were employed in the meat packing industry, located across the river in the Bottoms. Although the stockyards are long gone, the West Bottoms, now mostly warehouses, has burgeoned into a new art and entertainment district.
Early on, these European newcomers to Kansas City, KS, lived on the riverfront close to their stockyard jobs in Missouri. The 1904 flood destroyed these homes, forcing the community uphill. Highway and viaduct construction in the 1950s further intruded on the old Central European communities. Somewhat later Strawberry Hill became home to a sturdy Mexican-American community. And nowadays, Ty informs me, the area has become home to recent Burmese immigrants.
Even today, established communities in Strawberry Hill belong to two Catholic churches that anchor the area. The Croatian community still attends St. John the Baptist, and Holy Family Catholic Church, visible from the bookshop door, remains the Slovakian parish. St. John’s Park offers an impressive view of the Kansas City, MO, skyline.
A visiting humorist once referred to Kansas City as “a burgh the size of Asia.” He was referring, probably, to the larger Kansas City, in Missouri. But the Kansas City Metropolitan area, in fact, includes two states, both Kansas Cities and their suburbs, housed in five counties. “Spread out” is an understatement.
Flagship Books, actually, began its life in a different part of the greater Kansas City Metro: North Kansas City, MO. Ty had recently been brought home from a State Department teaching job in Tunisia because of the pandemic. Home at that time was family, living in Mission, KS. He continued remote teaching for the State Dept, but online teaching was not something he enjoyed.
The brothers began brainstorming ideas for a business they might both support and enjoy. When Joel, the real estate agent, sold a duplex, they had the money to invest. The Iron District in NKC was geared for an outside space since the pandemic was still an issue. Businesses and patrons were looking for outside spaces, and the Iron District offered unique shipping containers. The Melgrens started tentatively, but people did come. Since the shop was housed in a shipping container, they thought the bookstores might best he named for a ship.
“But not a battleship,” Ty adds with a laugh. “Eventually we settled on Flagship-Joel had the idea. It served us well even though we outgrew the original space.”
They remained in the Iron District for nine months. Since they lived in Kansas, they felt motivated to return. When the first Strawberry Hill location opened, they were ready to move. Eventually, the real estate agency space on N. 6th St. became available, and the Melgren brothers willingly moved once more.
“We are more visible here,” Ty explained during one of my visits. “We have people in their 60s or older stop by to chat because they remember the location, remember Weiss’s grocery store or the people who lived upstairs.”
This connection to Strawberry Hill’s past appeals to the brothers. Yet Flagship has both the comfortable, and comforting, atmosphere one expects of a bookshop, as well an as appealing community engagement and youthfulness. They’ve hosted local artists and printmakers as well as indie bands as part of the annual music festival organized by Manor records. They even offered a Chilean Music Night with the Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra.
The Melgren brothers’ commitment to local writers is proving to be another strength. One of the newest bookshops in the Metro, you increasingly hear people refer to Flagship. More readings and book launches are scheduled. Its social media sites are appealing and up to date. And more writers and writers’ organizations, as well as readers, are beating a path to its door.
Catherine Browder lives and writes across the river in Kansas City, MO. Her novel, The Manning Girl, (winner of the Petrichor Prize) was published by RHP in November of ’23 and has been selected by the Kansas City Public Library as a Book Club Book. She has published four collections of short fiction, including the award-winning Resurrection City: Stories from the Disaster Zone, about the NE Japan disaster of 2010. She is a recipient of fiction fellowships from the NEA and the Missouri Arts Council, and her work has appeared in anthologies and been nominated for a Pushcart.