27th Letter Books wins $100,000 in Comerica Hatch Detroit contest for Jefferson Chalmers site

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Detroit's Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood is one step closer to getting an independent book store Thursday as owners of 27th Letter Books were handed a check for $100,000 after winning the Comerica Hatch Detroit contest. 

The decision came after tens of thousands of votes were cast over a weeks-long campaign and five Detroit-based business gave their pitch, "Shark Tank" style, to a panel of judges in the Beacon Room at One Woodward in downtown Detroit. 

Drew Pineda, center, and Erin Pineda were awarded $100,000 for their small business, 27th Letter Books in Detroit, which they plan to open in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood.

This marks nine years for the grant competition, which in years past has been for a $50,000 prize. Besides $100,000, 27th Letter Books will get $200,000 worth of professional services and other support to open a brick-and-mortar store at no charge. 

27th Letter Books, which refers to the ampersand, sometimes called the 27th letter of the English alphabet, started this year as a pop-up shop. Owners Erin and Drew Pineda, both Air Force veterans, want to offer a permanent space to sell books and other writings from under represented voices and provide audio recording services. 

"There are only two full-time book stores in Detroit that offer new books," said Erin Pineda during their pitch to the room, adding that the libraries in the neighborhood where they want to open have very limited hours. "In August of 2019, neighbors in the Jefferson Chalmers community got together at community development meetings and specifically voiced their desire for a book store to add to the vibrant community."

Drew Pineda, who also is a musician, pointed to the way literature helped him through his chemotherapy after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The Pinedas have traveled the country visiting independent book shops like the one they hope to open. 

"27th Letter Books will be a consistent place for people to come and exchange ideas," he said.

They want the books on the shelves to be as diverse as the community around them, and plan to host children's story time and other community events. 

They said the $100,000 will be added to their personal investment to help them ready their historic Jefferson Chalmers building, get custom bookshelves made and buy a time-saving point-of-sale system specific to their business. 

Usually, just four businesses make it to the final stage of Hatch Detroit by getting the most votes. The tally was so close this year, however, that Hatch decided to allow for a final five. Nearly 30,000 votes were cast to narrow these five finalists, who are all women except for Drew Pineda, down from the top 10, which were announced in late September. The top 10 were chosen from about 450 submissions. 

The other four finalists included Brix Wine and Charcuterie bar and curation service; organic and vegan beauty tech company ILERA Apothecary; popular vegan food pop-up Street Beet; and Eastern Market crepe pop-up the French Cow.

Each were hoping to get cash to help with their brick-and-mortar efforts, which are in different phases.

Brix, for instance, had a wine bar and shop in West Village but closed after a year. Owner Mikiah Westbrooks said at the event that she gets the keys to her new space at Seven Mile and Livernois in about a month and will start the build-out. ILERA Apothecary plans to open up two pop-up stores for a six month period and go from there. 

Hatch Detroit founder Nick Gorga said the program aims to shine a spotlight on growing Detroit businesses. He said in the nine years of the program, 44 businesses have opened within the city, which include winners and businesses that made the top 10. 

"That's a stunning testament to the spirit of the Detroit entrepreneur and to the communities that envelope and embrace and support these businesses," he said.  

Past winners of Comerica Hatch Detroit contest, which started in 2011, include Hugh retail shop, La Feria Spanish tapas bar in Midtown, Sister Pie bakery, Batch Brewing, Live Cycle Detroit, Meta Physica Massage, forthcoming East African restaurant Baobab Fare and soon-to-open tequila and mezcal bar Toma. 

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Twitter: @melodybaetens