FBC Member Highlight: Kelly Stromberg

Introducing Kelly Stromberg of Helianthus Books. Kelly is seated, holding a book, against a background of organic electric yellow triangle, coral paint strokes, a teal pencil squiggle, and the "Member Highlight" title.

We are so excited to introduce November’s Highlighted Member, Kelly Stromberg of Helianthus Books!

Kelly (she/hers) moved to Kansas in 2017 with her family after living in several different states while her husband, Mark, was on active duty in the US NAVY; together they have 3 children. Kelly has a history of volunteering in school libraries, in political campaigns, and in the PTAs and PTOs of the many schools her children have attended across the country.

Here at Firebrand Collective, we love Kelly for SO MANY reasons: her commitment to voter’s rights and representation, but equally for the way she unfailing supports her friends, family, and the female community here in Kansas City. We think you will love her as much as we do (if you don’t already!) and hope to see you at this month’s Wine Down celebrating her and Helianthus Books! In the meantime, enjoy this amazing interview where we discuss books, political activism, and making the world a better place through action.

Hey, Kelly! Let’s jump right in: you announced the startup in January 2021 after almost a full year of COVID had most small business owners feeling a little shaky. What convinced you that the timing was right?

I think that for many people, the isolation of shutdown during the pandemic allowed space for re-prioritizing what we all wanted to do with our lives so I  asked myself what I wanted to be when I grew up. What came to mind was that I always wanted a place where people could come and be in community. I wanted to showcase local artists and musicians, I wanted to sell good books that people didn’t know existed but were perfect for what they needed at that moment. I wanted a place that was welcoming and safe. Of course, I could not afford to do that but am keeping that goal as a “maybe someday”. I researched what was realistic and how I could start to make that dream of being a bookseller a reality. I decided that a pop-up model might actually be preferable to a brick and mortar location because then I could bring these books to many different spaces. The COVID19 checks were what convinced me the timing was right. I used my check as seed money to start the business. Helianthus Books is entirely self-funded. It will grow at its own pace.

Person of color wearing a camouflage jacket over black tee and pants holding a stack of books. Listed, from top to bottom: "Braiding Sweetgrass", "An African American and Latinx History of the United States", "Saints and Misfits", "Black Magic", "Hood Feminism", "Radicalizing Her: Why Women Want Violence", "Mexican Gothic", "I am the Rage", "Body of Render", and "When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through".

Your pop up bookstore, Helianthus Books, is not simply a book store. Can you tell us more about your mission and what you hope to achieve with the inventory you offer?

Absolutely! The mission of Helianthus Books is to democratize bookselling by meeting people where they are and showcasing books that might not otherwise be found at the big box stores or larger chain bookstores. I curate a selection of books for all ages to bring high quality, meaningful books written by and about marginalized identities and topics with the intention of connecting people with the books that will enrich their lives. Representation matters and it is my hope that the books I offer will inspire, inform, educate, and entertain my customers. It is my belief that we can make the world a better place when we see ourselves represented authentically in books and when we read authentic representations of people who have different cultures and identities to our own.

In addition to the work you do with Helianthus Books, you’re quite politically active at the local level. How did that experience influence your mission?

Oh my, yes! It is all connected isn’t it? I do believe that good policy can make a tremendous positive influence on people’s lives and so I volunteer as a precinct committee leader to encourage my neighbors to be informed voters, and also volunteer on the campaigns of candidates that believe in good policy. I think that work naturally informs the mission of Helianthus Books because at its core, this work is about service to the community with the intention of making the world a better place. One voter, one reader, at a time. So much of politics is fear based and so much of that fear is dependent on not knowing the truths of other people. Helianthus Books is all about platforming the people’s truths and connecting people with those truths.

Has being a mission-driven entrepreneur affected the way you view the world?

I think that it has deepened and affirmed my world view. Each interaction I have with customers fuels me to continue to support good policy and candidates that support good policy and that uplifting the voices of marginalized people, especially politically marginalized people, is important work that needs to happen. I am humbled and honored to facilitate that.

Model wearing a rhinestone fringed jean jacket holds a stack of books. Listed left to right: "This Is My Brain on Love", "Show Me A Sign", "Darius the Great Deserves Better", Firekeeper's Daugher", "Misfit in Love", "The Humane Home", "The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma", "Untold: Defining Moments of the Uprooted", "The Other Half of Happy", and "The Seed Keeper".

In a world where people often use social media to showcase only their best moments and work, you seem to really revel in showing up in a way that’s very true to you. Is that a conscious decision?

It is just so much easier being me than it is trying to be someone I’m not. Especially during this pandemic, when so many people are having a hard time emotionally, I think being honest and authentic is helpful not only for the content creator, but also for the content consumer. Mental health is an issue that is very important to me and I think when people are true to themselves, and other people see their own truth reflected in that, everyone is better off for it.

Anyone who’s started a business knows how daunting the process can be. What was the biggest hurdle for you?

If it wasn’t for the Covid Check, I think that start-up money would have been the biggest hurdle because without that, I wouldn’t have been able to experience any of the other hurdles. After that I think it was creating the business plan. There were just so many unknowns about the financials and while I did end up guesstimating those, guesstimating isn’t something I’m terribly comfortable with.

Not everything is hard work, though! We definitely all experience joy in our journeys. What about yours have you enjoyed most so far?

I love popping up and meeting people and talking with people and finding the perfect book for them. It is spiritually uplifting to me when customers tell me that they loved the book recommendation I made or that they appreciate seeing themselves and their families represented in the books I bring. I love that look in customers eyes when they find that book that excites them.

Helianthus Books has been a part of several pop ups since launching in June 2021. What’s one thing you would tell anyone considering popping up?

DO IT! You will meet the best people. You will strengthen your ties in the community. You don’t need to buy a truck or van or a fancy POS system. If I can fit a bookstore in my sedan, you can too. Bring a chair, bring lots of water, bring a towel, bring hand sanitizer. Practice popping up so that you can gauge how long it takes you to set up and break down so that you can time arrival at your popup location accordingly. Have fun.

Two girls hold stacks of books. The two visible books are, left to right: "All the Way to the Top" and "Carmela Full of Wishes".
Image featuring family of Krissie VandeNoord, jewelry by Whiskey & Bone and High Desert Turquoise, books by Helianthus Books, photographed by Cassie Taylor. Produced by Fountain City & Co.

This next one is one of my favorite questions. I ask every one of our Featured Members this and the answers always thrill me: What is your entrepreneurial superpower? What skill, talent, or personal resource has been or become the most valuable?

I think my entrepreneurial superpower is that I am very research focused. I think this serves me well in that before I jump into something, I am as prepared as I can be so that I can bring the best selection of books to the pop-ups. When choosing a book title to sell, I check to see if it was well received by the community it portrays and if not, why not. Then I cross check the title to see if it has won awards and what those awards represent. Then I check the rest of my inventory to see if it adds new content to the selection before I order it for the shop. Because I’m a popup shop, I have to be very intentional about the titles I bring in. I want to offer so many more books that fit in a 10X10 space so I want to make sure each title is something worth reading.

What is next for Helianthus Books? Anything big on the horizon?

Helianthus Books will continue to pop-up and the next big thing will be to rework the website into something more in line with our mission and who we are. At the moment, it isn’t very useful and that has to change. In 2022, we will begin offering gift sets. I’m excited about this. The plan is to offer them through the revamped website. Think Graduation sets, Housewarming sets, BabyShower sets, Newlywed sets.

Last one, and it’s totally off-topic, but so, so good. What is your favorite song to sing in the car?

My favorite song is completely dependent on the weather, the season, and my mood. For instance, when I’m on my way to any political event, I like to listen to “I Guess I Planted” by Billy Bragg & Wilco from the Mermaid Avenue album. Ok, I admit, I really do love to sing along with this at any time and at the top of my lungs with the windows down. It’s so full of good energy. It is the perfect song to get me in the mindset of campaign work, though.

Kelly and Helianthus Books can be found via her website and Linktree, as well as Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. Make sure to give her a follow and a share or comment of support! Better yet, support small this holiday season and buy your nearest and dearest some books from the thoughfully curated collection at Helianthus Books!

Helianthus Books website





Featured image. Photography by Sarah Beth // CrushModelStudios, graphic design by Megan Adams.

First image featuring Morgan Diane Jones, clothing & jewelry by Whiskey & Bone, books by Helianthus Books, photographed by Cassie Taylor. Produced by Fountain City & Co.

Second image featuring Annika Bergsten, clothes & jewelry by Whiskey & Bone, books by Helianthus Books, photographed by Cassie Taylor. Produced by Fountain City & Co.

Third image featuring family of Krissie VandeNoord, jewelry by Whiskey & Bone and High Desert Turquoise, books by Helianthus Books, photographed by Cassie Taylor. Produced by Fountain City & Co.