One Woman's Journey So Far to Open a Bookstore in the Bronx

Noëlle Santos, courtesy of the Lit Bar's Indiegogo
Noëlle Santos, courtesy of the Lit Bar's Indiegogo
Photo of Michael Barron
Books And Digest Editor24 October 2017

The Lit Bar received funding in March to give the New York City borough its first independent bookstore, so what’s holding it up?

There are hundreds of bookstores in the New York City, nearly 90 in Manhattan alone, and not one of them calls the Bronx home. This oversight is now being addressed by one of the Bronx’s own, a book blogger and HR professional named Noëlle Santos, who has raised the funds for the Lit Bar, a bookstore / wine bar that would service the borough’s residents. The Bronx has been without a bookstore since January when the single bookstore servicing all of the Bronx, a Barnes & Noble located in the northeastern neighborhood of Baychester, closed despite protests. It has since reopened as a Saks Off Fifth.

“I need your help to cure our book desert.” Santos wrote in her Indiegogo campaign mission after taking up the cause to do something about the closure. “I was OUTRAGED when I realized my borough of over 1.4 million people only had one bookstore—an inaccessible Barnes & Noble that has since closed its doors, leaving us with not one. My Rx for the Bx is an indie bookshop/wine bar that speaks to needs of my unique, thriving, and often stigmatized community.”

According to NPR, the Lit Bar’s initial funding came via the New York Public Library, which she used “to set up pop-up shops around the borough to raise awareness.” Santos’s initiative caught many a sympathetic ear, with almost two million people contributing to her campaign which funded in March. Its massive success was followed by a plethora of online, printed, radio, and TV press, where Santos would speak about the Bronx’s need for a bookstore and her trepidatious excitement to be opening one herself. “I’m terrified,” she told NPR’s Rick Karr. “You know, there’s a lot of money involved. The community and the nation has put all their trust into me—invested. America bought me a bookstore.”

Noëlle Santos, courtesy of the Lit Bar

But while an opening had been slated for late 2017, the Lit Bar is evidently still looking for the right home under the right conditions. Part of the hold up appears to be local politics as Santos seems caught in a tug-of-war between activists who don’t want gentrification to come to the Bronx, and developers who see positives to gentrification, including engendering new independent businesses such as the Lit Bar. As reported by Broadly, developers have begun buying up property in the South Bronx, “aggressively pushing a reshaping of the area into a chic, ‘post-industrial’ neighborhood,” and putting “71 percent of Bronxites are at risk for displacement from a borough with the lowest rate of homeownership in the city.”

“Of course there’s truth to the idea that if it’s going to happen, we should make sure people here benefit and capitalize on something inevitable,” reported Bronx activist Ed García Conde. “But doing business with your executioner doesn’t make sense.”

“I know [property owners] are thinking about me as a catalyst for them to bring similar businesses,” Santos told Broadly. “They want to use me as their poster child, some little black girl from the Bronx that they helped, as if that would make everything all good.” On the hand, Santos recognizes that things are already changing for the New York City’s poorest borough. “It’s over for the Bronx,” she says. “[Developers’] attitude is to make their real estate investment and get out, and that’s already happened, so I’m going to do everything I can to preserve Bronx culture as much as I can as one person: the food, the music, the language, the faces — brown, Latina faces.”

As of October 1, the Lit Bar maintains an active newsletter and a presence as a mobile bookseller and merchandiser (where you can get that Read or Else hoodie seen up top). You can keep up with the Lit Bar here.

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