Turning the Page: The Bronx

September 11, 2018

by Jenna flanagan

A famous Brooklynite once said, “It was all a dream,” About achieving the seemingly impossible, against relentless odds.
It was another less famous Brooklynite Arleen Lorrance who first penned the world famous quote, “be the change you wish to see happen.”

That’s right, the often misquoted line, should actually be attributed to a young teacher struggling in an at-risk Brooklyn High School in the 1970’s. Lorrance’s book, ‘The Love Project’ is about her experience, transforming a school caught in a downward spiral.

Similarly, it was the Bronx literary scene that also found itself in need of transformation and visibility.
And so, it was two, ‘regula-schmegula’ girls from the Bronx that stepped up to the plate, to make the reality of books and the Bronx, synonymous for New Yorkers and the world.

Noelle Santos sits in an office with stacks of books behind her

Noelle Santos, Lit Bar owner

“The Lit Bar is the only bookstore in the Bronx. It’s also a wine bar, and it’s a grassroots project that I started in 2014 when I learned that our only bookstore in the borough was in jeopardy of closing,” says Noelle Santos, a Bronx resident, avid reader, small business owner and fortuitous activist.

Just a few years ago, 2014 to be precise, Noelle was still paying the bills with and IT gig on Wall Street. It was through Facebook that she discovered the Barnes and Noble in the Baychester section of the Bronx was set to close due to higher rents. The mega bookstore was the only one serving all 1.5 million people in the Bronx.
Saddened and dismayed, Noelle made a decision on the spot to open the Bronx’s next bookstore.

“I didn’t know that bookselling was even an option for me. I’d never been exposed to it. I had never set foot inside of an independent bookstore before I decided to open one on my own. I had always measured my success by how far I can get away from the Bronx,” she explained. “You get your education and you ‘get out the hood.’ Just learning that our borough had 1.5 million people, 10 colleges and not one bookstore struck me so heavily as a reader. So I canceled all my life plans pretty immediately and decided that I was going to be the one to step up and stop waiting for ‘the adults in the room’ to fix it.”

So she did her research, contacted other booksellers for guidance and came up with a plan, which she entered into the 2016 New York StartUp!— a business plan competition hosted by the New York Public Library and the Citi Foundation. Noelle came in second with her idea for the Lit Bar, which will join several other new businesses on Alexander Ave in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.

“I live here. I know this neighborhood. It’s near and dear to my heart. But I was very strategic about where I decided to put this business. This swath of the South Bronx is gentrifying. And I wanted to put my business in. I want a seat at the table,” explained Noelle. “I don’t have a problem with the Bronx developing or progressing. I don’t have a problem with having upscale businesses or having mixed income in the community. What I do have an issue with is people who are not from here moving and developing in the South Bronx not or anywhere where people already live and bringing their culture into these existing communities. That is my issue. So I wanted to be a part of the development, a part of the progress that’s going on in the Bronx, and I wanted to ensure that faces that look like mine are represented in these market rate districts and that we have a voice. Is it for us to buy the block? Is it for us to have ownership here…for us to not leave any room for outsiders? Because when you leave it undeveloped when you don’t move on it somebody else will take the opportunity.”

Noelle says funding the Lit Bar was a community effort. After receiving her StartUp! New York seed money, she created a Kickstarter campaign to reach her 100-thousand dollar goal. Thanks to social media, she surpassed it, getting some big, big donors.

“Michael Moore, Chris Hayes, Joy Bryant and the biggest donation came from a woman who lives in Brooklyn who just looks to support good, great causes. But you know someone that you probably wouldn’t have heard of. And, but the bulk of the money came from the community. Everyone chipped in together five, ten dollars.”

“So I always want to stress to the community that we did this. No one is coming to save us and we don’t have to wait for them to come save us. We have the power to invest in the things that we want to see done for us.” And while the Lit Bar will have nowhere near the square footage or inventory of Barns and Noble, it will serve the community.

“So it’s going to be a general interest bookstore, mostly new books. There will be a presence for children. My children’s section is called ‘Kiddy Lit’r’ but it’s L-I-T’R, like a play on The Lit Bar, because ‘Mommy can we go to The Lit Bar’ and get lit?’ Is probably not a good idea. So there will be a children’s presence. Families are welcome. And so I definitely want to give independent authors an opportunity. So while the Barnes Noble that we that we used to have, I appreciated them for what they were, it wasn’t accessible. It wasn’t accessible by transportation and they weren’t because of their corporate structure, they weren’t readily able to provide opportunities to a local community, because they have the whole bureaucracy you have all the chains, all these chains you have to go through to make decisions. Someone can walk in off the street and pitch their book to me. I want to be able to give people a platform so they’re no longer selling books out of the trunk of their cars but they actually have a place where they can start a legitimate business for their art. Then maybe they can prove a case to these bigger chains and have a place to start and become educated about how the publishing pipeline ecosystem works.”

Part of that ecosystem includes book fairs. Book fairs offer a chance for fans and readers to meet their favorite authors, discover new titles… and above all, meet each other. That’s why another Bronx resident and literary publicist Saraciea Fennell founded The Bronx is Reading, The Bronx Book Festival.

Her title is a positive spin, on the negative association of the Bronx is burning, that too many people still have of her home borough.

Sacaciea Fennell standing in front of banner 'The Bronx is Reading'

Saraciea Fennell at the first annual ‘The Bronx Book Festival’

“My narrative is to get the entire borough reading. I grew up in foster care, in the projects — those are the people I am trying to reach. Those are the people who tend to be reluctant readers or feel like they can’t read or have never walked into a bookstore, have never been to a book festival, have never met an author and illustrator. They don’t even know that they can work in book publishing or they don’t know that they can write books and make money. They don’t know that they can draw or the people tagging up graffiti artists, you can turn that into an illustrated book. They don’t know these things. And even if they do, there’s no access for them make it happen. So that’s the narrative that I’m trying to change in the Bronx. It’s not only that there’s no bookstore. We’ve never had a book festival. It’s the overall message. I want the whole 360 degree angle.”

The book festival, like the Lit Bar, was inspired by Barnes and Noble closing.

“And I thought, ‘well what can I do?’ Because I know that people in the Bronx read. I know that they want bookstores. They want things like this. And so I started doing research and reaching out to people asking them if they would partner with me to put on a book festival. I’m a publicist. I work in publishing. I already know what it should look like. I don’t have any money, though. So I need partners. And I got a lot of no’s and a lot of ‘this is a fantastic idea.’ But you’re not a non-profit. So no we can’t partner. And after years of that I was just like ‘You know what? I’m just going to crowd-fund this bad boy. And hopefully people will donate and hopefully there will be other people out there in the world who would want to help me put this on. So I put out a call on Twitter and I said I’m planning a book festival in the Bronx who would like to help me. And hundreds of people signed up to volunteer. And I had my first meeting one Veterans Day in 2017.”

The Bronx is Reading book festival kicked off on May 19th of 2018 and Saraciea, overwhelmed with emotion, knew she was on to something big.

“And so literally it came together very quickly. I cried a lot. If you follow me on Twitter there’s like a video that I still have pinned to my page saying thank you to everyone that backed the kickstarter.”

And it wasn’t perfect weather for a book festival either.

“I had some festival goers who came in and we were putting up tarps to protect people who were sitting in the chairs the rain and the wind, and they said ‘Do you need help? You look like you need help.’ And they just got up and it was just very familial feeling. This is the literary family right here. ‘We’re here to support you if you need help putting up tarps, or if you need help putting chairs down.’ It was just phenomenal. You know there wasn’t anyone who was upset. No one was yelling. Everyone was encouraging each other to check out the books and thanking the authors for coming and talking to them. It was just amazing, so amazing.”

In total she says she got between 700 and 800 people to come out, including 12 authors, several of whom had Bronx roots themselves to participate in the festival’s panels.

Among the attendees, Elizabeth Acevedo, the author of Poet X; Sayantani DasGupta who is the debut author of a middle grade book called The Serpent secret and Tracy Battista who is the author of the bees which is another middle grade title. I was super excited about that.”

Of the many gratitudes that Saraciea shared with festival goers, a recurring theme was the event’s location.
The Bronx Book Festival was at Fordham Plaza, which was an ideal location because the borough is virtually split in half by the interstate highway system.

“If it was happening in the South Bronx you didn’t know about it in the north Bronx and if it was happening in the north Bronx you didn’t know about it and the South Bronx.”

“And so people in the north Bronx don’t necessarily hang out in the South Bronx and people in the South Bronx don’t hang out in the north Bronx — don’t even get me started on Riverdale. So I just want to bridge the gap, and I want you know my thing is for the entire borough really. Which is why I had the festival at Fordham Plaza. I find that to be the central hub, which connects easily from the South Bronx, connects easily from Manhattan. People from New Rochelle, Mount Vernon, Yonkers. You can hop on Metro North and come on down. So I think that’s the perfect central hub when you’re looking at the Bronx for all access. If you live in Dyckman, which is all the way uptown in Manhattan, you can take the 12 bus and come on down and you’re at Fordham. Even my friends in Queens can take and express bus and come over.”

And getting people to reimagine the Bronx, what it is, where its potential lies and that there’s a literary tradition just as strong and proud as it is in other boroughs is what people like Saraciea Fennell and Lit Bar owner Noelle Santos are dreaming of.

“I think we need books just like we need air, food and shelter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of a bookstore, but our libraries are underfunded. We don’t have the resources that they have in other boroughs next door,” says Noelle. We’re not just a book desert, but we’re a food desert. Infrastructure is not on par with the resources that you see in Manhattan and Brooklyn. And it is a shame that I live in the literary capital of the world, and there’s not one bookstore. That’s representative of a larger injustice.”

In their own way, both of these ladies are notorious, and they’re making the change they want to see in the Bronx, transform from a dream, but a reality.

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