Sandra Dear found the first note in a mailbox outside of her bookshop on Aug. 1, 2017, a day after it opened in Bayonne, New Jersey.
"Get out, we do not want your kind here," she said it read.
Dear, who is Black, was disappointed but didn't make a big deal of it because she didn't want to overshadow the day before.
"On our grand opening, this town gave us the best reception ever," she said in an interview Thursday. "For a small bookstore to have people line up outside and wrap around because they want to get in and see what you've done was amazing."
Over the past three years, Dear said, she has received notes, emails and phone calls with a similar tone or racial bias, but none like the ones that targeted her the morning of Nov. 20, when one of her employees alerted her to troubling emails. The frequency of the emails, which she said contained racial slurs and were sent about 15 minutes apart, alarmed her. They were followed by a "racially charged" phone call to The Little Boho Bookshop that threatened her life, Dear said.
"Shaken, I contacted the authorities, who responded swiftly, assuring me that the matter would be given the utmost attention, and that all steps would be taken to ensure that no harm came to me," she wrote in a social media post two days later.
Bayonne police launched an investigation into what they deemed an act of bias intimidation. The police increased patrol in the area and on Nov. 21, several officers on post at the bookshop were approached by a man they would later identify as Qiuewn Zheng, 59. He uttered the same words that were in the emails sent to the bookshop, police said. Zheng was arrested and charged with bias intimidation, cyber-harassment and making terroristic threats and is being held without bail at Hudson County Correctional Center.
After his arrest, Dear said she was not OK but that she would be.
"Last night, a tear finally escaped," she wrote in the Nov. 22 post, "but this incident will not change me."
About a week later, patrons from Bayonne and beyond walked into her "happy place" with an overriding message on Small Business Saturday: "Love overcomes hate," Dear said.
"Please know that I saw you, I heard you, was completely moved by you, but mostly I thank you for seeing me," she wrote in a message that Sunday to her thousands of Facebook and Instagram followers.
Some customers traveled from afar. Many stood in long lines in the cold and others made purchases via the bookshop's website in what amounted to a day Dear said she won't soon forget.
It was the biggest day of sales that the store has ever had. Because of its size and Covid-19 restrictions, only six customers are allowed in the store at a time. Dear offered cookies and coffee to the many customers who waited outside in the cold.
Kristina Petti, a Rahway resident, wrote on the bookshop's Facebook page that she felt fortunate to be a patron of the store.
"You are truly a shining gem in New Jersey and I would drive the 30 minutes every day to stand in your beautiful book shop," she said. "So happy that I was part of your wonderful day."
'This shouldn't happen to anyone'
A few years ago, Dear moved from California to Bayonne, a city with a population of nearly 65,000 that is 63.4 percent white, for a job in New York City. She had always dreamed of opening a bookshop. She worked in the publishing industry for 15 years and before that as a buyer for J.C. Penney.
"I don't know of another place where I feel as at home as I do when I step into a bookstore, especially a small, independent bookstore," Dear said.
The Little Boho Bookshop opened as a children's bookstore.
"But that only lasted about six months when the parents said, 'Hey. We read, too. What about us?' So we quickly pivoted," Dear said. "And given that our space is small, I feel pretty good about what we've accomplished here to create our little general interest bookstore."
Profits from bookstores are "quite low" and people who get into bookselling don't do it to get wealthy, Dear said. They do it for a love of books.
The 700-square-foot shop employs five people. It was Dear's concern for her employees that prompted her to call the police on Nov. 20 and to document the episode in the social media post that drew more than 800 comments on Instagram and Facebook combined.
"My biggest fear in all of this was any impact to the team that work for me," Dear said. "And that's why I felt the need to speak out."
"What if something had happened to these young people? What do I do then? How do I tell their parents?" she asked. "That is what drove me to put it out. And to finally say, 'Enough is enough.'"
Being anti-racist is not always easy, but it is necessary, she said.
"I really hope that it leads to more than, 'We really like her, she's nice and this shouldn't happen to her,'" Dear said. "This shouldn't happen to anyone."
There was one reported bias incident in Bayonne in 2016, none in 2017 and 2018 and seven in 2019, according to the state's annual reports. Bias incidents can also be reported to the state by ancillary agencies, such as transit police and the Hudson County Sheriff's Office. There were 944 reported bias incidents in New Jersey in 2019 — the highest total and the largest year-over-year increase — since the state began collecting that data in 1994.
'You should be able to be whoever you are wherever you are'
Dear has aimed to make her bookstore inclusive.
One winter morning in 2018, Dear said she was running late for work and hurriedly got dressed. She wrapped her hair in a black T-shirt and went to the bookshop.
Later that day, she said, she got a call at the store. "Do you sell the Quran?" the caller asked.
Dear said she replied, "Yes," to which the caller responded, "I need 50 copies and I'd like to burn them and you in your store," before the call went dead.
She was disappointed but undeterred and has worn T-shirt head wraps to the store every day since.
"I am not Muslim, but you should be able to be whoever you are wherever you are," she said.
Dear said she has been overwhelmingly embraced and buoyed by the Bayonne community and that she and other small businesses have benefited from their support, especially during the pandemic.
"People from our community, they've pretty much stepped up with Covid and said, 'No, not this business. Not our small businesses. We're going to support them as best as we can,'" she said.
Dear was also bolstered by media mogul Oprah Winfrey, whose magazine included The Little Boho Bookshop on a list of Black-owned bookstores in the country over the summer.
"We saw a huge boost from that," Dear said.
'A community that stands together in times of hardship'
Julie Aly, 33, a manager at Judicke's Bakery in Bayonne, a business her family has owned for more than two decades, said the community stands together in times of hardship and that The Little Boho Bookshop has been an important addition.
"Sandra is always doing events for the community and the children in the community and allows small businesses to host pop-up shops outside of her business on Sundays," Aly said.
Although she doesn't know Dear personally, Aly said Dear "feels like a friend, not just a store owner." Aly said The Little Boho Bookshop is her favorite place in Bayonne.
"In March before the pandemic, my sister, best friend and I went into the bookstore to pick up a few things," Aly said. "Sandra gave my best friend so many home activities for her 4-year-old son to have and for free."
The Little Boho Bookshop also delivers for free locally and offers curbside pickup, Aly said.
"It's little things like this that make me thankful and happy that she's part of our community and know that she will make our community a better one," she said. "Bayonne is lucky to have Little Boho Bookshop and Sandra."
Dear said she won't allow the incident last month to distract her from her focus: promoting childhood literacy.
"We are all going to go through difficult things. And you can do one of two things: You can cower from it or you can walk through it and learn from it," Dear said. "And this has been a teachable moment."