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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Can Queens support more than one bookstore? A Kickstarter campaign tries to find out

This picture taken on January 5, 2016 shows

This picture taken on January 5, 2016 shows an employee walking past shelves in a bookstore in the Causeway Bay district in Hong Kong

There's only one mass-market English-language bookstore in Queens. Three former Barnes & Noble employees are trying to change that.

The Queens Bookshop Initiative began on New Year’s Eve 2015, when Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa, and Holly Nikodem, who had worked together at the Forest Hills outlet but since left, returned to the Barnes & Noble with other former booksellers to commemorate the final closing of its doors.

“We all wanted to be together for the final closing announcement,” Nikodem says, recalling the voice on the PA system saying, “This location will be closing at such and such hour.”

Afterward, following some picture-taking and milling around, Nikodem recalls that Castillo said, “Something has to be done. There aren’t bookstores now.”

And then there was one

This past winter, with the closures of two Barnes & Noble outlets in Forest Hills and Bayside, Queens bid farewell for now to the big-box retailer.

The company said in a statement Thursday that it is “evaluating opportunities in Queens” but hasn't yet found a “suitable location.”

Barnes & Noble had once been regarded warily by booklovers, a corporate entity elbowing out local stores. But in the era of Amazon, the hearts of some print-lovers thawed, and outlets like Forest Hills’ became precious community centers and enormous repositories for a wide range of books and other media literally at your fingertips, not pointer fingers.

The departure of Barnes & Noble meant that Queens, with a population of more than 2.3 million, now relies on Astoria Bookshop as the last general-interest English-language non-used bookstore still standing, according to booksellers.

Enter Castillo, Noboa and Nikodem, who say they have more than a decade of bookselling experience, and have been lifelong booklovers (their Kickstarter page includes a link to a back-of-napkin outline Castillo drew for her dream bookstore as a child).

The three decided to take matters into their own hands, scouting out locations for their own store mostly in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. Their Kickstarter has raised just under $15,000 in less than a month, and they hope to raise $70,000 to fund inventory and start-up costs for an opening by early 2017.

To make the space a community center, as some libraries have attempted to become, the trio plans to host open mics, storytimes and short plays and to stock local authors such as Phil Klay, Megan Abbott and Bill Cheng.

They’re also considering same-day bike deliveries, resume-editing nights, art nights and movie screenings for films based on books — in addition, of course, to physical books.

Embracing print

One of their first orders of business was to reach out to other independent bookstores for advice, from Greenlight in Brooklyn to The Ripped Bodice in Los Angeles, a romance-exclusive bookstore.

Many offered advice, says Nikodem, but none were discouraging — even the very first owner who returned their call: Lexi Beach of Astoria Bookshop, their putative competition.

Beach said in an email it’s “incomprehensible” that Forest Hills has no bookstore and thinks the trio is wise to fill a hole in the market.

“Everybody is supportive. Everybody just wants there to be more bookstores,” Nikodem says of the exploratory outreach.

Indeed, Astoria Bookshop was in a similar position when it opened a few years ago, blocks from a recently shuttered bookstore. In the age of Amazon and a recent coloring book boom, selling physical books can seem risky business, though independent stores have experienced something of a resurgence lately, boosted by less competition and readers who want to support small businesses.

Nikodem hopes to “build upon a desire for the analog that people have,” pulling away from the frenzied pace of the digital landscape — while remaining digital citizens, benefiting from the large internet community for fundraising, as with their Kickstarter, and raising awareness.

The businesswomen — who learned their trade by handselling and stocking shelves, hefting boxes of vendor returns — are hoping that Queens residents will turn to them for their physical reading needs and for the booksellers' expertise.

But also for the ability to look for, choose, and go home with their own books — a rite of passage that Nikodem says is particularly important for children, who they hope will be frequent visitors to the store: where they can go through the process of building their own "literary identity."

This is amExpress, the conversation starter for New Yorkers.


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