For the Bronx, the beginning of 2017 marked the end of its only bookstore. When the Barnes & Noble in the Baychester neighborhood shuttered because of rising rent, it left the New York borough of more than 1.4 million people without a single place to buy books.
Noëlle Santos, 30 years old and a lifelong Bronx dweller, wasn’t going to stand for that. In 2014, when Santos heard that the Barnes & Noble would close at the end of 2016, she thought: “Okay, I have two years to get it together and get us a bookstore,” she tells Co.Exist in an interview. She came up with the concept of a bookstore-wine bar called the Lit. Bar, which, once she finishes a crowdfunding campaign next month, she plans to open in the South Bronx by the summer.
Santos grew up reading; her mom loved fiction and poetry, her father nonfiction. Books were her way of imagining a future for herself, and she never saw herself staying in her home borough. “I used to measure my success by how far away I could get from the Bronx,” Santos says. After securing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration and accounting from Lehman College, Santos began to think about leaving. The news about the Barnes & Noble, which had been open since 1999 and which Santos used to drive to to stock up on books, stopped her in her tracks before she began to flesh out a plan to leave. “I was faced with this harsh reality that there would be no bookstores left for people here,” she says.
As a book lover, Santos felt the loss personally, but as a Bronx dweller, she recognized the news for what it was: Another symbol of the lack of investment in a part of New York City that, despite recent waves of gentrification and change, continues to struggle in the face of disinvestment and neglect. At 37%, the Bronx has the highest rate of food insecurity in the U.S., and its schools consistently fall at the bottom of city and statewide ratings.
While bookstores across all of New York have struggled to remain open due to rising rents–and Barnes & Noble has closed several of its brick-and-mortar locations across the country–no other borough was left with no other bookstore option. Of course, the Bronx does have 35 library branches, and they’re vital to the borough–a Center for an Urban Future report found that attendance at public library events in the Bronx jumped 225% between 2002 and 2014. But the selection at the branches is limited, Santos says, and locations are closed on Sundays–which is often the only time families have to make the trip.
More importantly, there’s a certain sense of community that independent bookstores bring to neighborhoods that’s hard to replicate. When Santos decided to open the Lit. Bar, she trained with bookstore owners around New York, who taught her industry basics, and also showed her how bookstores function as a particular type of public space that offers something unique to the people who come in. Though Santos was initially reluctant to turn to crowdfunding, preferring to lean on loans and her personal savings, “I put my pride aside and did what I needed to do to get the job done,” she says, recognizing that the donations she’s asking for will benefit not only her, but everyone in the Bronx community. Once she hits the $80,000 mark of her $100,000 goal, Santos is going to get serious about signing a lease. She’s also considering tapping the business development services of two local incubators, SoBro and the Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, and her business proposal won $7,500 through a competition hosted by the New York Public Library.
Of course, the wine element will set the Lit. Bar apart from other bookstores, but Santos also sees her venture reflecting her borough in a way that larger chain stores would never able to do. “While I appreciated the Barnes & Noble’s presence, the programming had nothing to do with us,” Santos says. “You’d walk in and see the same thing you would at any other store–there were hardly any local authors on the shelves.” If all goes according to plan with the Lit. Bar, Santos hopes that at least 20% of her inventory—which will be composed of both new and used books–will come from local writers. “Representation is so important,” Santos says, “and I believe that something special indies can do is stock an inventory that actually reflects the community that’s buying the books and taking them home and thinking about them. I want this to be a place where people of all incomes and races and creeds can see themselves.”