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Bringing A Bookstore To The Bronx


Nearly a million and a half people live in the Bronx. And since the end of last year, there hasn't been a single general interest bookstore in the New York City borough to serve them. But a Bronx entrepreneur is working on changing that. From New York, Rick Karr reports.

RICK KARR, BYLINE: Bronx native Noelle Santos decided it was time to open a bookstore in the borough even before Barnes & Noble closed its only retail location there.

NOELLE SANTOS: That Barnes & Noble - while I appreciated their presence, it never, like, really served the core or was accessible to the core of the Bronx. It could take you up to 50 minutes if you live where I live just to get there by public transportation. It was easier just to take an express train to the city. And then you're taking your dollars out of the Bronx.

KARR: It's not just money that's flowing out of the borough, Santos says. Bronx-based writers have to head to Manhattan for readings and other promotional events. Bronx-based readers don't have a place to connect. And online booksellers, she says, don't solve either problem.

SANTOS: We need a physical space like a bookstore, whether it be independent or a chain store. It serves this physiological purpose that Amazon cannot reproduce. Amazon is not a bookstore. They are an algorithm, and that's all.

KARR: It's also easier for young people to get in the habit of reading if they grow up with access to bookstores, according to Lisa Lucas.

LISA LUCAS: That's a place of discovery. That's a place where the magic of books comes alive in a really tangible way.

KARR: Lucas is executive director of the National Book Foundation.

LUCAS: And I think the more places and spaces that we have that communicate the value of the book, the more that people will want to take a book home or think, oh, this is something I should do.

KARR: Creating a space like that isn't easy. And Noelle Santos knows it, not least because she has no experience as a retailer. She works in a corporate HR department. Her only experience with booksellers is as a customer.

SANTOS: The industry has been pretty volatile over my entire lifetime, 30 years. And I was, like, OK. What can I do to put a spin on this traditional bookstore model to be a more sustainable business?

KARR: Santos decided that what she could do was combine a bookstore with another business she figures is pretty much recession-proof, a wine bar. She calls it The Lit Bar.


SANTOS: Once upon a time, a girl from the Bronx...

KARR: To raise capital, she launched a crowdfunding campaign with a video explaining why she wants to bring a volatile business to an underprivileged community.


SANTOS: And it will be called The Lit Bar - lit like literature, lit like drunk, lit with passion to kill stigmas overdue to be debunked. And prove once again that the Bronx keeps creating it. And we are worthy - that we are more than just sneaker stores. And we support the arts. So I stand here today and ask you to open your hearts.

KARR: Santos says her campaign to launch The Lit Bar turned her into an accidental activist. And her crowdfunding video turned her into a poet.

SANTOS: That poem that I wrote was the first thing I've ever written.

KARR: That does not sound like a verse poem anybody ever wrote (laughter).

SANTOS: I'm from the Bronx. We all have rap in our blood (laughter).

KARR: The Lit Bar's initial seed money came from the New York Public Library. She used it to set up pop-up Lit Bars around the borough to raise awareness. Fundraising really took off when Barnes & Noble closed its store late last year. So far, she's raised more than $150,000 through her crowdfunding campaign. Before the end of the year, she expects to have a location in the South Bronx ready to open its doors, at which point she'll quit her 9 to 5 job to start selling wine and books.

SANTOS: I'm terrified (laughter). 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 (laughter).

KARR: Noelle Santos says The Lit Bar will open with about 5,000 titles in stock. Ten to 20 percent of that will be books by local authors and artists that she'll sell on consignment. If everything goes according to her business plan, the store will be breaking even a year and a half after it opens. And even if things don't go according to plan, she says she'll have to be pried out of The Lit Bar before she'd think of giving up. For NPR News, I'm Rick Karr in the Bronx. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rick Karr contributes reports on the arts to NPR News. He is a correspondent for the weekly PBS public affairs show Bill Moyers Journal and teaches radio journalism at Columbia University.