Rethinking What Business Can Do
Dr. Daniel Rossi-Keen, owner of EQuip Books, has not always been a business owner. He began the search for his vocation at Grove City College where he studied to become a music teacher. Eventually he was introduced to philosophy and theology and became excited about pursuing these fields of study. He decided to attend seminary and while there Daniel says, “I continued to follow ideas and really wrestle with this question about how they relate to culture and how society should look in light of the gospel. I kept chasing ideas, reading, thinking, and writing.”
He followed his academic pursuit to Ohio University where he obtained a graduate degree in philosophy and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Culture. He says, “In my mind I was going to be a professor for the rest of my life.” He did serve as a professor for a time. He taught at Stetson University in Florida where he lived with his wife, Pamela, and their three children. Both Daniel and Pamela enjoyed teaching, but something did not seem quite right. They began to feel as if God were calling them back to Pennsylvania. Daniel explains, “We loved being in higher education and teaching and reading and publishing and that sort of stuff, but we were increasingly troubled by the fact that we really weren’t part of a vibrant community, a vibrant faith community in particular. So for a long time God had been laying on our hearts that we wanted to come home for a better part of a decade. So finally through a lot of different decisions and preparation we ended up deciding to resign from my university position and move back to Aliquippa.”
Moving to Aliquippa made sense to the Rossi-Keen family. The city was home to Pamela who had grown up in Raccoon Township and spent the latter part of her childhood and early adulthood attending Crestmont Alliance Church. Also Pamela’s brother, Steve Rossi, is the Executive Director of Aliquippa Impact. Daniel says, “We have a close relationship with Steve, a close relationship with Joel, and for a handful of years we would get together and dream, talk, and pray. We couldn’t really shake the idea that we wanted to be back here and be part of was happening in Aliquippa.”
So in 2011, the family moved back to Aliquippa to be a part of the community. Daniel brought with him a vision for a new business on Franklin Avenue.ÂÂ In 2008, shortly after taking a teaching position at Stetson University, he began selling books from his graduate school days. He recalls, “Within a couple weeks I had made a few hundred bucks and that at the time was quite a bit of money for me. I was looking for something to learn about and read about so I started studying the book industry-online retail-and I just kept experimenting with it. Over time I got pretty heavily into understanding how this kind of stuff worked.” Before he knew it his business expanded so much that he could no longer operate out of his home.
Daniel says, “This was all a side thing at the time. What I didn’t realize was it was really preparation for moving back home. I have a lot of training and education on paper, but it is not the kind of thing that is terribly employable outside of the university setting so in some ways the book business started as a creative necessity- a way to make some money and make a living. I eventually started to realize I could use this as a way to provide for our family back in Aliquippa.”
Daniel realized that not only could the business provide income for his family, it could also serve as a form of mission work in the city. He explains, “If you read business literature you’ll hear about social enterprise or social entrepreneurship- the idea of for-profit business operating with a more traditional non-profit kind of mission. So you’re creating within your organization this ability to sustain yourself financially, to employ people, to build up the process of profit in a way that has purpose beyond just making profit. So we started thinking of Aliquippa as a place that could really benefit from that kind of vision of what business could do. “
As the vision for the book store began to develop, Daniel looked for possible locations for his business. He looked at Franklin Avenue, which as he points out, is very symbolic to the city of Aliquippa. Historically it was the center of commerce, growth, and development. Also, being the main road through the town, it is the most visible and traveled piece of Aliquippa for people unfamiliar with the city. Daniel explains, “We wanted to be sure to plant a business in a place that was visible. We planted it on Franklin Avenue in some ways as a kind of visible protest to the idea that Aliquippa is past its prime-that Aliquippa is not a place where a book store can thrive. We wanted to kind of shake our fist at the idea and say, ‘No, we’re going to start a business here and we’re going to do it in a creative way that allows us to benefit the community, spread ideas, and do so where a lot of people might least expect it. ‘
Eventually an opportunity for a vacant space on Franklin Avenue emerged and Daniel purchased the building.ÂÂ He says, “We made a deliberate choice to renovate a space, to reclaim a lost and forgotten building on Franklin Avenue.” With much work to be done on the building, more helping hands were needed. Daniel turned to many youth in Aliquippa Impact’s programs for assistance. He recalls, “When we moved into the space we spent nearly a year and a half renovating the space before we opened it to the public. It was through that process that we were able to bring in a lot of youth from the community, particularly young men from Aliquippa Impact.” The youth helped with various aspects of renovation including painting floors and walls and light construction work.
The store’s retail space opened in the spring of 2014 and Daniel continues to involve Aliquippa’s youth in the store’s operation. He explains, “We’ve also been able to consistently pull youth in the community into our day to day operations, giving them employment, having them help sort and process inventory, and pack books. “ EQuip Books partners with Job Training for Beaver County, which has provided grant funding that has allowed Daniel to employ about a dozen youth from Aliquippa. Employment at the book store gives youth the opportunity to learn basic job training skills they can use in the future.
Although empowering Aliquippa’s youth is very important to Daniel, he wants EQuip Books to impact the entire the community. The EQuip Books employee shirts read, “Empowering local youth. Rethinking what business can do.” When considering what the shirts read, Daniel says, “That’s something we’ve put at the heart of what we’ve been up to since the beginning and increasingly we’ve been realizing that we want to expand that vision not just with youth, but beyond- this idea of not us empowering the community, but ideas and literature and the history of the human experience-all the things that books and book stores can provide for the community. We want that to be an empowering force in Aliquippa and we want to use more traditional business practices to allow that to happen.”
Because of his relationship with Steve Rossi, Joel Repic, and youth from Aliquippa Impact’s programs, Daniel is quite familiar with AI’s ministry. “What most attracted me to the mission of Aliquippa Impact was this counter-intuitive and counter-cultural commitment to the slow, patient work of building relationships and establishing yourself as a presence in the community. As I watched the organization from its infancy, there was this consistent sense that ‘we’re here, we’re not going anywhere, and we’re going to stick around as long as it takes’- not only to help people, but to share life with people. It seemed like something we couldn’t help become a part of.”
When thinking of what Aliquippa Impact has done in the community, Daniel Rossi-Keen does not think in terms of tangible results. He believes oftentimes the term ‘tangible results’ comes with an expectation that a ministry must physically build something , something that people can see, if it is to be impactful. While obvious, tangible results are good, it is not the only good. Daniel explains, “I think that one of the things Aliquippa Impact in a very valiant way fought against is the idea that tangible hope needs always be seen as something that is obvious. I tend to think that some of the most lasting and beneficial outcomes of the work of Aliquippa Impact have actually been way less tangible than a lot of people might appreciate. I think Aliquippa Impact has begun to reframe the way people think about what’s possible in a place like Aliquippa. I think AI has allowed both native Aliquippa folks and people from the broader community to begin to re-envision how Aliquippa can look, what it can become. I think they’ve started this conversation that gets people to realize that Aliquippa is just a place like any other place with people just like other people and that’s something that is often not assumed in our broader community. “
Daniel has also seen AI’s programs affect the mindset of the youth in the community. He says, “Fostering tangible hope- I see that in young kids who are starting to think about themselves differently, starting to think about their futures differently, start to view the world not as something that is rigid and fixed and has to be a certain way, but they start to see a world of possibility. They start to see themselves as creative, thoughtful contributors to Aliquippa and to the broader community. “
Daniel comments, “I think all God’s people were created to be hopeful, creative, members of rich communities-and I don’t mean rich financially, I mean deep in relationships, opportunities, and experiences. I see the work Aliquippa Impact has done as reigniting a vision for that possibility in the community. And that to me maybe isn’t tangible in the typical way of thinking of it, but is certainly the most important and most life-giving thing I think of.”
Daniel joins Steve, Joel, and many other people and organizations in Aliquippa who long for a vibrant community. They work alongside community members to bring the city to its fullest potential and help others outside the city see it, too.