When Bronx native Noëlle Santos decided to open an independent bookstore in her home borough, she had never set foot in one herself.
When The Lit. Bar opens in the Bronx this summer, it will be the borough’s first bookstore since the Baychester Barnes & Noble closed in 2016.
“I wasn’t educated on the power and magic of independent bookstores, because I never was exposed to one,” the 31-year-old entrepreneur says. “I’m disgusted that we’re not offering this intellectual visibility in our community.”
This idea for The Lit. Bar started in October 2014, when Santos was “wasting time on Facebook” and came across a petition to stop the Bronx’s Barnes & Noble from shutting its doors.
“I lived at that Barnes & Noble, so I was devastated,” Santos says.
At the time, she was working a six-figure job in human relations for an IT firm in lower Manhattan. She was “ashamed” to realize that the borough she grew up in, home to more than 1.4 million New Yorkers, didn’t have another bookstore.
At the time she was urging friends to sign the petition and save Barnes & Noble, Santos had plans to move in with her longtime boyfriend in Long Island City. But within two days of seeing the Barnes & Noble petition, Santos already had the concept and name for The Lit. Bar picked out and her life totally changed.
“I was very comfortable, moving up the corporate ladder, and I thought that was life what was,” Santos says. “But I canceled my life. . . . I was tired of running away. I felt like a coward leaving the borough in the same condition I found it in.”
Leaving no longer felt right to Santos.
“A lot of people like me get our educations, get out of the hood and measure our success on how far we can get from the Bronx,” Santos says. “We’ve been complaining about the investment in education and the arts forever, and our solution was just to leave and we take our greatest resources, which is ourselves and our education, with us.”
With the Barnes & Noble in jeopardy, Santos immediately started saving money to start her own bookstore, looking to the city’s independent bookstores for inspiration, guidance and practical skill building. She worked at Housing Works taking out the garbage, carrying boxes of wine to set up for events and learning the point-of-sale system. She worked shifts on the register at Word Up Community Bookshop in Washington Heights.
“I did whatever I could do to get hands on training,” says Santos, who had never worked retail before she dreamed up The Lit. Bar.
In 2016, Santos headed to the Amelia Islands in Florida to take a weeklong course on running a bookstore. While there, she met a Harlemite also interested in opening up a local store, who encouraged her to enter a small business competition run by the New York Public Library and Citi Foundation. Santos came in second place, and buzz surrounding the bookstore began to grow.
Though Santos initially thought crowdfunding for a for-profit business was “so tacky,” she launched an Indiegogo campaign, exceeding her initial goal of $100,000 in just five weeks.
Now, with a space in a new building in Mott Haven, Santos is getting ready to finally launch The Lit. Bar.
When it opens, there will be a floor-to-ceiling sliding ladder across bookshelves, so Santos can live out her “Beauty and the Beast” Belle fantasies, murals and graffiti by local artists adorning the walls, and, pending approval, the bar part of bookstore’s name.
The inventory will be reflective of the community The Lit. Bar intends to serve, says Santos, who aims to sell books by authors of color and featuring protagonists of color, as well as people from different marginalized groups.
“When I was young, I thought all authors were dead people,” Santos, a lifelong bookworm, says. “I didn’t realize they were living, breathing people I could connect to. I didn’t know being an author or bookseller was a career option.”
Unlike the old Barnes & Noble, The Lit. Bar is easily accessible by subway, though Santos wants to prioritize serving both existing and new residents in South Bronx so they “can become real neighbors.” Recent tensions over gentrification have made Santos more than ever want to create a “safe space for people to actually connect.”
- Santos’ favorite book right now is “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo. She’s excited to sell the title at her store.
- The Lit. Bar will feature a bar made out of hardcover books donated by the community.
- Before The Lit. Bar opens, the shop will host a painting day for community members to help decorate the walls.
- The Lit. Bar will be located at 131 Alexander Ave. in Mott Haven. For updates on hiring, events, opportunities for local authors and more, subscribe to the bookstore’s email list at thelitbar.com.