Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The Bronx is set to lose its only bookseller. An independent shop hopes to take its place.
On a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon, Noëlle Santos is selling books at a holiday pop-up market hosted by the Bronx Museum of Art. They’re going fast; Santos tells me she brought in $1,000 on the previous day. A crowd gathers at her booth, many eating spicy mac-and-cheese or sipping cinnamon-laced coquito from neighboring stalls. Rolling carts are stocked with $5 paperbacks, and some titles are mysteriously shrouded in brown paper. Santos has covered them in clues, hints about the genre or plot, but the buyer’s not quite sure what’s inside.
It’s an attempt to drum up enthusiasm for her soon-to-be bookstore, The Lit Bar, which is poised to be the only one of its kind in the Bronx.
The Barnes & Noble at the Bay Plaza Shopping Center, which opened in that location in 1999, is scheduled to shutter next month, leaving this borough of more than 1.4 million people without a single general-interest bookstore. The store had been fighting to stay afloat for years and nearly capsized two years ago, under threat of rising rents. Then residents—including Santos—rallied, swaying the landlord to reconsider.
Now, however, there will be no reprieve. “Though we were paying substantial rents at this location, the property owner has decided to lease the space to another retailer who was willing to pay more,” said David Deason, vice president of development for Barnes & Noble, in a statement. It will be replaced by a Saks Off 5th clothing store, The New York Times reported.
In recent years, Manhattan’s bookstore landscape has been similarly gutted, but they still number in the dozens. Some are thriving, and others take a scrappy approach to financing. Other boroughs also have holdouts, though their ranks are dwindling: Earlier this month, BookCourt, shut its doors after 35 years in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. Soon after, though, the author Emma Straub announced that she and her husband are seeking to open a bookstore nearby. “A neighborhood without an independent bookstore is a body without a heart,” she wrote on her blog. “And so we’re building a new heart.”
Only the Bronx stands to be without a single dedicated vendor. The borough president, Ruben Diaz Jr., said that a Barnes & Noble store would reopen elsewhere in the borough within the next two years—and Diaz pledged his support to make it happen. Still, the Bronx Times noted that the chain’s spokespeople haven’t committed to a date or firm plan for a new opening.
Santos, who cut her teeth at other local bookstores, including Housing Works and Word Up in Washington Heights, hopes to fill the gap that will be left behind. She won $7,500 in a competition hosted by the New York Public Library, and will look to secure more in a crowdfunding campaign launching in January. She envisions a hybrid bookstore/wine bar—a combination she hopes “brings an element of sexy to the project” and insulates her against future volatility in the book business. She’s eyeing a spot near Hunts Points and hoping to open the doors by May.
In an underserved neighborhood, “having a bookstore open is a big deal,” says Susan Neuman, a professor at New York University who specializes in childhood literacy. Kids who see others around them reading and writing are primed by this early modeling to think about literacy and build a relationship with books. Early exposure to books is correlated with measures of school readiness, too.
But, Neuman adds, dedicated bookstores aren’t the only path to promoting literacy. In a borough where the poverty rate hovers around 30 percent, many parents “cannot spend $16 on a storybook for their child. They just can’t,” she says. To connect more residents with books, Neuman suggests that the city’s publishing community could offload extra runs; reserves could pop up in unexpected locations, such as dollar stores, pharmacies, and other non-traditional outlets and places they’d fall into people’s paths. “I would like to see books in grocery stores and outside of churches in the vestibules, so people get the feeling that books are very much a part of their lives,” Neuman says.
Last summer, Neuman and her collaborators installed a free book-dispensing machine on a street corner in Anacostia, a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where most residents are black and more than half live below the poverty line. Demand was staggering: Neuman told The Atlantic that 25,000 books were collected within the first six weeks. She hopes the results of this trial will inspire confidence in proprietors debating whether or not to add books to their shelves. She faults a vortex of misperceptions: Would-be sellers might see bookstores floundering and think their customers won’t come seeking books, so they don’t stock them; customers can’t buy books if they’re not up for grabs. Neuman hopes that the vending experiment can help change the perception that low-income consumers don’t want books. “We think they do,” she says.
Santos agrees, and that sentiment is borne out by the people leafing through books at the pop-up. Greg Stanger crouches down to look at titles in the bargain bin. He’s been living nearby for two years, and says he doesn’t know many places to buy books locally. He stops by the Salvation Army, but their selection is unpredictable. When he’s looking for something specific, he travels all the way down to the labyrinthine Strand, in Manhattan. Fantasia Pelzer opens her bag to show me her new copy of Warrior Goddess Training. She likes inspirational things, she says; she used to find them at Barnes & Noble. “We need more readers,” she tells me. “There’s no place for them to go.”
Strictly speaking, that’s not quite true: The Bronx has 35 public library branches, whose holdings have increased by 16 percent over the past decade. Attendance is up, too: A report from the Center for an Urban Future noted a 225 percent leap in visitors at public programs between 2002 and 2014. Nicola McDonald, a librarian at one of those branches, is visiting the pop-up, too, and points out that libraries’ free resources fill a crucial need in low-income areas. But some libraries have slashed their hours, and many are closed on the weekends, when it may be most convenient for a family to visit, Neuman says. The threat of late fees can be another deterrent, particularly for families with mounting bills and few resources.
Bookstores invite lingering, and Santos imagines hers being firmly entrenched in the community, as a “third place for readers and glass clinkers.” A bookstore is “where you go to bond over a story, or where you go to escape,” she says. A bookseller delivers custom recommendations with more empathy than an algorithm can muster—an exchange Santos compares to a transaction at a pharmacy: “You come in with your ailment, and ask, ‘What do you have for this?’”
McDonald, who is also pursuing an MFA in fiction at City College, met Santos through a Meetup group, and is eager to join the future shop’s book club. “It’s exciting to have a bookstore where you can go meet with other writers,” she says.
The business is also a homegrown investment in the borough’s future, Santos says. When local entrepreneurs launch elsewhere, “we’re taking our resources out of here,” she adds. Meanwhile, the bookstore’s future neighborhood, Hunts Point, has seen an uptick in rent that outpaces the citywide average. Rents in the area crept upwards by 28 percent between 1990 and 2014, 6 percent above the average increase across the boroughs, according to a report released by NYU’s Furman Center last spring. As some residents stare down the threat of being priced out, Santos thinks it’s a good time to celebrate the locals who are “developing our own borough, improving it for us, by us,” she says. She also hopes to buoy creators via through a consignment program that gives artists a platform for selling their work.
When bookstores buckle, Santos adds, that closure suggests to kids that their imaginations and futures aren’t worth investing in. “If you don’t support your local bookstore,” she says, “you’re going to hell.”
Santos laughs, but she also means it; she really believes in books—and the community connections they can foster. “There’s nothing more pure in the world,” she says.