February 22, 2017

Noëlle Santos is bringing a goddamn bookstore to the Bronx

by

When the Co-op City Barnes and Noble first announced that it was going to shut its doors and leave the Bronx without a general interest bookstore, we did what we always do: we wrote blog posts about it, because it was sad, and because we didn’t know what else to do except sign an ultimately futile petition (sound familiar?).

When Noëlle Santos heard that same announcement, she signed that same petition. Then she decided to step up and open her own damn bookstore. For the people. As Santos told Elisa Doucette in Forbes,

“I had a hard time coming to terms with the [Barnes and Noble] closing at first, because I used to be one of those people that measured their success by how far they could get away. As soon as you get your education and get your degree, you look for better quality of life.

“[My boyfriend and I] were planning on getting married and having a baby, you know, starting life. And as we’re ready to start adulting, I stopped and said to him, ‘Look, I can’t leave. I’ve got to stay here and bring books to the Bronx.’”

And so she did, embarking on a two-year quest to educate herself about the book trade and prepare financially for the rigors of starting a new business. Santos, a longtime bibliophile, has a strong background in human resources and business management, and as soon as she started researching the book business, she realized she might be making a huge mistake: “This was the first thing I found when I looked into the industry and I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m about to mess up my life.’”

But Santos stuck with the program, and on the way won a small business grant from the city, as well as a ton of excellent press. She’s now months away from opening up The Lit. Bar, a bookstore/wine bar, in her temporarily book-hungry home borough. She’s currently trying to raise $100,000 (about a third of her total startup costs) through IndieGogo. With a little under a month to go before the fundraising deadline, the campaign has raised almost seventy-two percent of that goal. So, if any of you reading this signed a petition to keep a bookstore in the Bronx, put your money where your mouth is and chip in.

Things look good for The Lit. Bar — Santos has done her homework. She’s got a rock-solid business plan and the enthusiastic support of her community (the store’s first bookclub started up a freaking year ago), and is on pace (assuming you help out) to make her fundraising goal, which should help her to secure additional loans and a long-term lease.

But, still, one of the big takeaways from the Forbes piece, and from Santos’s own account of her experience, is how difficult the whole experience has been. Not that it’s ever easy to start your own business. But it’s especially difficult to start a business as a black woman from the Bronx. As Santos puts it:

I’m black, and I’m Latina, and I’m a woman, and I’m from the South Bronx. I have to run 10 times faster than everybody else just to be taken seriously. So, I needed everything I possibly could. I had to make sure my credit score was perfect while others were good. I had to make sure I won that competition. I had to make sure I had experience. Before all that, I couldn’t even get property owners to show me space in the South Bronx and banks wouldn’t talk to me about a loan.”

Yep. Santos, who has a bachelor’s and a master’s (in business administration and accounting), had to intern (!!!) at three different independent bookstores (Housing Works, Word Up, and Greenlight), hold a full-time job, and maintain a perfect credit rating to get a walkthrough and a consultation. But she did it. Why?

“The Bronx needs a bookstore. One, because we need access to literature. Reading and literature is the foundation for every type of learning. Any type of learning you can imagine, you need to read. And two, we need to build a culture of self-worth. Losing that Barnes & Noble was the epitome of what others think about the Bronx and the people in it.”

As Doucette points out in her piece, Santos’s struggle is part of a larger crisis of inclusion that the publishing industry is struggling to escape. She’s done more than her fair share, and her success should inspire us to do ours, to rise to the occasion. It’s time to stop signing petitions, and to start changing the way we act and the way we work. And also to start throwing money at Nöelle Santos.

 

 

Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.

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