On a recent Wednesday evening in Washington Heights, the Word Up Community Bookshop hummed with happy activity. Customers browsed the tidy stacks of English, Spanish and Russian-language titles. A woman dropped off two bags overflowing with books to donate and a volunteer got to work shelving these new arrivals. A small group circled up their chairs in the back of the store for a weekly writing workshop, conducted in Spanish.
Scenes like this are common at Word Up, which, according to its recent newsletter, has distributed more than 30,000 books and held more than 1200 events since it opened a little over year ago. But people are stopping in for reasons other than to shop or attend events this month: a steady stream of concerned local residents have been popping in to ask, “Have you heard anything? Is there any news? Do you know where you’ll be moving?”
“It’s like, even when we don’t have anything to give, people come because they need this space”
Early in July, the volunteer collective that runs the shop learned that its management company had decided to terminate the shop’s month-to-month lease. Word Up’s leaders must find a new home for the store by August 31. While they are hopeful about the future, they also have some trepidations about leaving the place that has nurtured them and allowed them to grow this past year.
“There is so much that happened at Word Up just because of the walking traffic in this area and because the Heights is a really mixed up, diverse place,” said Veronica Liu, Word Up’s founder. “In some areas, you really feel a drop off of that diversity. We don’t want to lose that.”
This is not the first time Word Up has faced losing its home. The store began as a temporary space — a month-long pop-up shop dreamed up by Liu and sponsored by local nonprofit, the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA). Word Up opened in June 2011 at an empty storefront at Broadway and 176th Street with the permission of Vantage Properties, the owner of the space.
Word up was so popular with the community that Liu and a core of volunteers pushed to keep it open on a long-term basis. Thus began a series of extensions and negotiations between Word Up, NoMAA and Vantage that eventually resulted in a month-to-month lease agreement. After spending several months in the space rent-free, Word Up started to pay a below-market rent in December 2011. The volunteer collective financed this new expense with books sales and the occasional community fundraiser.
While Word Up has found a way to survive these previous brushes with losing its home, Liu said this time is different. A new management company, Alma Realty, bought the property in June. While the company honored Vantage’s arrangement with Word Up, Alma Realty chose not to renew the subsidized lease agreement when it ended in July.
After elected officials advocated on behalf of Word Up, Alma agreed to allow it to stay until August 31 so that the collective has more time to secure a new space. State Senator Adriano Espaillat and City Council Members Robert Jackson and Ydanis Rodriguez all spoke on behalf of the store, which they view as a much-needed outlet for the community.
“Word Up has provided a haven of literacy and culture in a neighborhood bursting at the seams with artists in every possible medium,” said State Senator Adriano Espaillat in a written statement to MetroFocus. “I am pleased that following our outreach to the landlord on Word Up’s behalf, Alma Realty agreed to extend the store’s lease for a month, and to work with the store to find an alternate site.”
According to a post on Word Up’s blog, the ideal site is “centrally located in Washington Heights with a lot of foot traffic, close to our current 1,000 square feet, would include a stage and storage space, and would be at a subsidized rental rate.” Word Up’s leaders are committed to staying in the neighborhood and have received several tips from the community about possible spaces to rent.
At a meeting earlier this week, the collective decided which leads to pursue first, but have not yet made any firm decisions. They are also considering alternative models that could offer a more stable future for the store. One possibility is partnering with another organization that could offer space or financial support to Word Up. Another option is operating as a mobile business, though Liu stressed that this is a secondary solution.
Volunteers remain hopeful about Word Up’s future, but say that the idea of leaving their original space is a bit daunting.
“For me, it’s a general fear of change and not knowing the future,” long-time volunteer, Ben Ehrlich said. “Obviously, you can’t ruin the bonds that we’ve built with the community by moving, but that uncertainty is still nerve-wracking.”
Liu also believes that bond with the community will remain strong. She tells the story of a recent power outage at Word Up as an example. The store’s power went out during a storm, just before the start of two scheduled events. The deli next store ran an extension cord into Word Up to power a lamp and two fans and the volunteers cleared a space in the front near the windows. In spite of the weather and the power outage and the lack of air conditioning, more than 30 people piled into the space for the events.
“It’s like, even when we don’t have anything to give, people come because they need this space,” Liu said. “I think that kind of thing will happen wherever we are because that need is just so great in Washington Heights.”