Last December, Barnes & Noble’s store in the Bronx closed its doors for good, bringing the total number of bookstores in New York City’s second-most populous borough to zero.
But lifelong Bronx resident Noëlle Santos is determined to change that. Later this year, she’ll be opening The Lit. Bar, a combination bookstore, wine bar and event space that she hopes will inspire and engage readers of all ages in this economically depressed, yet rapidly changing area.
Many women start businesses out of a desire to solve a problem, our research has shown. And Santos, who is currently a human resources and payroll director at an IT firm in Tribeca, is taking on a big one: access to literature for children and adults alike in her underserved neighborhood.
Her effort is resonating with residents in unexpected ways, she says. Not only are they excited about having a bookstore again, they’re regaining a sense of possibility about their neighborhood. “Young girls have said to me, ‘I’ve always wanted to move out of the Bronx for a better quality of life. But now I see what you’re doing, and it’s inspired me to develop at home, instead of running away.’”
It’s an impulse Santos understands all too well. “I used to be one of those people who measured my success by how far away I could get from the Bronx,” she says. Now she’s committed to improving it, and is sinking everything she’s got into a future shop within walking distance of where she was born and raised.
Campaigning for a Community
Santos’ journey began in 2014, when she received a petition to fight the closure of the Barnes & Noble, which was near her Bronx home. She signed and shared it, but that didn’t feel like nearly enough to her, given the lack of other bookstores in the area and her lifelong love of classic literature.
Galvanized into action, she spent months setting up an Indiegogo campaign, detailing plans for the store to supporters and soliciting donations for the donor perks. She also started attending festivals and taking on mentors who could show her the ropes of the book industry.
Financially and personally, she says her biggest supporters have been area residents, who helped make her crowdfunding campaign a viral success. Thanks in large part to them, she recently reached her goal of $100,000, and money continues to pour in with 16 days left to go.
“These are not rich people, but they’re putting in a dollar or five dollars or ten dollars, and it’s adding up,” she says. In turn, Santos has made the community’s needs a primary focus of her business model. Indeed, thinking locally has influenced her thoughts on everything from the store’s inventory to the “feel” of the place — including a new focus on kids.
Grooming the Next Generation of Readers
Santos says children’s literature was not always a part of her business plan — as evidenced by her concept’s prominently featured wine bar made out of books. But as word of her plans spread, locals began to see in her store a place to inspire kids to read, and she felt a sense of “responsibility to step up and learn.”
She now plans to create a children’s section — called “Kiddie Lit’er” — and will bring on a manager who specializes in kids’ books. A number of the festivals and seminars she has attended specialize in children’s literature, and the more Santos has learned, the more passionate she has become about engaging younger readers.
After all, research shows that reading for fun has lasting, positive effects on children’s overall reading abilities and test scores. And it’s a pressing matter for Bronx residents. A 2015 analysis from the New York Daily News found that just 10 percent of elementary and middle school students in District 7 in the South Bronx demonstrated reading proficiency.
So to ensure that she serves Bronx’s children well, Santos spoke with industry experts and local school officials alike to “identify why we’ve adopted a culture where reading is not at the forefront.”
One culprit, she argues, has been a lack of effort by large publishers and bookstore chains to engage the borough’s young readers with titles that light their fire — something Santos intends to address head-on. “While it’s important to expose younger generations to all different cultures from around the world, it’s also important to include diverse subjects that hit home for these kids.”
Inspired Locally, Celebrated Globally
Now that plans and money to bring her dreams to fruition are falling into place, Santos has begun eyeing a retail space in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, and says she is on track to open the store’s doors this summer.
She will do so under something of a media spotlight. The Lit. Bar has received coverage from the likes of The New Yorker, Gothamist, The New York Times and The Huffington Post, as well as the public financial support of documentary film producer Michael Moore. Moreover, Santos’ plan took the $7,500 second-place prize in The New York Public Library’s New York StartUP! 2016 Business Plan Competition, funded by Citi Foundation.
In addition to promoting literacy, she hopes The Lit. Bar will inspire other people with entrepreneurial drive to start up in the Bronx. “Our neighborhood is being gentrified — you’re seeing a more affluent population moving in and seeing businesses that don’t reflect the existing Bronx culture,” she says.
But if residents “stopped running away from the Bronx, and if we leave the borough in better condition than when we found it, then we would have the power to fight against” the erasure of local culture — and for the kind of progress that today’s Bronx residents want.