NOËLLE SANTOS

Not everyone wants to open a bookstore that has a wine bar. Wine bar, sure. Bookstore, sure. But opening the two is a very unique combination. I'm curious why you are interested in opening a bookstore. I read that you graduated from high school when you were sixteen... Were you going to libraries growing up? Were you going to bookstores? What was your literary history?

My mom wrote poetry. Not formally, but she wrote poetry in the house and she kept journals. My mom grew up in bookstores. There used to be a Jewish-owned bookstore; I believe it was on Grand Concourse. Back in the day, that’s where we used to frequent. My mom was very big on reading, so I grew up reading Toni Morrison, Laura Ingalls Wilder, V. C. Andrews, Sister Souljah, Omar Tyree, and many other authors.

I remember the first book she ever forced me to read was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I hated it at the time, but as I grew older I learned to appreciate it.

My mom was definitely influential in my desire to read. When my stepdad came around when I was about eight-years-old, he was more of a revolutionary spirit. He trained me like a little soldier to be free-spirited, free-thinking, and confident. He’s also very book smart, emphasizing non-fiction, so I had the best of both worlds.

So from an early age you knew that literature could empower. How did you stumble upon this idea of bookstore meets wine bar?

My boyfriend had wanted to open up a bar in this neighborhood. He’s from Long Island City so what we've seen happening in the South Bronx now, we’ve already experienced in Long Island City. So before all of this buzz, and before The Lit. Bar was even conceptualized, he had wanted to open a bar.

I’m the researcher of the team, so I had looked into the cost of getting a liquor license and we just threw the idea out the window because the cost of a liquor license is crazy. So we let the idea go.

Fast-forward about a year, and a petition came to my attention. There were two girls from the Bronx who were saying that the Barnes & Noble that we have in Co-op City was going to be displaced. That Barnes & Noble is really successful, but property owners didn’t want to renew their lease.

In October 2014, I got wind of their petition and I went on a rampage, getting as many people as I could to sign it. At the time, I didn’t know who the girls were. I was just a concerned resident just trying to keep our bookstore.

The petition eventually galvanized the property owners to extend the lease through this year, but then we don’t know what’s going to happen.

It’s not really accessible. No train goes there. So you basically have to have a car. And it’s Barnes & Noble; it’s not really in tune with what’s happening in the Bronx and the culture here because it’s a corporate business. It’s cookie cutter.

Then it hit me – I would open a bookstore... and the bar idea was revived as an interesting and compatible twist.

Who do you hope to serve with your bookstore and wine bar?

Our target market is women of the Bronx, ages 25 years and older, with some college education. We pinpointed that group as people most likely to read. I’m not trying to create a market that is not there. I’m not trying to create Bronx intellectuals. They’re already there. I’m just trying to service them. There is nothing for us. We take our dollars for books and intellectual entertainment to Manhattan and to Brooklyn. I do it too because that’s the only way I can consume it; but I’m tired of giving away my dollars to other boroughs and just complaining about it.

A lot of people don’t know this, but independent bookstores and corporate bookstores are different beasts, especially in sales. Indies' presence has increased thirty percent since 2009. Our sales, the indie bookstores' sales, last year in 2015, were up 10%, which outpaces the sales of book sales nationwide. The ABA (American Booksellers Association) last year welcomed 61 bookstores, and that’s not all of them because not all bookstores become a member.

Indie booksellers speak to a psychological need – something that Amazon could never do. They’re an algorithm. They’re not a bookstore.

Great point. How did you come up with the name, "The Lit. Bar"?

The original name was Lit. BookBar, but people kept calling it The Lit. Bar. So I was like, 'Let’s just go with it.' It was driving me crazy and I was tired of correcting everybody.

Also, the name of my mentor’s bookstore is called BookBar. Which is actually how I found her. Once I started getting more involved and immersed in the bookstore industry, I realized how tight-knit the bookstore industry was and I didn’t want our stores to ever be confused. So I was like, ‘You know what, let me do it now, in the beginning, before we invest in the name,’ and that’s how it turned into The Lit. Bar.

How did you reach out to your mentor, the owner of BookBar? Also, what are the politics like within the bookstore industry?

When I get something in my head, I just become obsessive. Google is my best friend. So after the petition in October of 2014, that January, I knew that I was going to open up my own bookstore. So I reached out to American Bookseller Association (ABA) and they gave me this package on how to open a bookstore.

I wanted to connect to other booksellers. So I just cold-called people. The first person I called was the owner of La Casa Azul in East Harlem. I was so impressed with her impact in the community. I kept calling people, and from that point on, everyone was on board to help me.

‘My name is Noëlle, and I want to open up a bookstore. I don’t know what I’m doing. Can you help me?’

Nicole Sullivan of BookBar in Denver was one of the bookstores that actually features a wine bar; she was all on board to help me with anything. She’s really busy herself. She just expanded and then she added an outdoor area and a bed and breakfast to her store. She’s doing awesome. For the past two years, she’s been my mentor. In every sense, she’s just been amazing and so supportive.

In April of last year, I went on the Paz & Associates Owning a Bookstore retreat. It was a week-long course for prospective bookstore owners. We met vendors and we learned, how much is this going to cost, how long is this going to take. They had several skills assessments, so I was able to really pinpoint what kind of support I was going to need, how much of it I could realistically do myself, how much do I have to budget. It was so valuable; I left there knowing, ‘Okay this is for me.’ I’ve been working at this day and night for almost two years now.

The bookstore community has the kindest people you will ever meet. People have given me their sales so I can present them in my business plan as proof of concept. Booksellers have gone above and beyond.

I think that goes to show that literature is revolutionary. I think people recognize the power it holds, and people aren’t selfish about that power. Because the power in literature is to educate... And if you want to educate, you don’t hold that power to yourself. So it actually does make sense that the bookstore community is very helpful to one another.

When I first started this, I never worked in a bookstore. When I did those skills assessments on the Paz & Associates retreat, I realized I need to. So I got a job in a bookstore. I started working at Housing Works Bookstore Café in Soho, walking distance from my job in Tribeca. Now I’m working at Word Up Bookshop in Washington Heights.

Even my would-be competition is helping me. At Word Up Bookshop’s birthday party, they passed me the microphone to announce my store. At their birthday party, at their bookstore, with their crowd.

The difference between an indie bookstore and something like a Barnes & Noble, is that an indie bookstore serves as a hub for the community to interact and become neighbors, which is so important right now because there is a lot of tension between the new residents and the existing Bronx residents.

A lot of Bronx residents complain about new residents coming in and not caring about Bronx culture, but there’s nothing really in their face to be exposed to, to learn that the Bronx is more than Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, and The Botanical Garden. It’s so much more than that. We have an exceptional art community here. There’s so much talent here. We have tens of thousands of people who graduated from colleges here. We have ten colleges in the Bronx. I didn’t even know that until I started on this journey.

And one bookstore…

That we’re trying to keep open!

Right! So you're working on The Lit. Bar day and night. You're working at Word Up Bookshop to learn more first-hand. Are you still working at your current job?

Yes, I’m a human resource director. I work in Tribeca at an IT firm. I’m a department of one, but it’s pretty flexible. It’s the perfect situation for me to be opening this business and I have the support of everyone.

I took this job just because I knew I was going to be opening this bookstore. I was doing freelance HR work before this for a few years. I was doing contract work, and I was like, ‘Okay, I need to make sure that any future lenders or property owners will be able to see stability.' I didn’t want to give them any reason to not work with me. I’ve been going extra hard in every other area: my credit score, my business plan, my projections. I have to go the extra mile. I have to be ten times better than anyone else because I’m a minority from the South Bronx. I’m a woman. I’m young. I have to run ten times faster than anyone else just to get heard.

Exactly. When I saw Ty Allen Jackson’s video, I got goose bumps. He was commending you on your journey, and he highlighted the importance of literacy, correlating low literacy rates among young students, to high dropout rates, high incarceration rates, and high poverty. He was tying together this idea of literacy as power.

I first saw this video in the laundromat and I started crying. Well, some girl at the laundromat started crying… that wasn’t me. *laughs* It drove home the idea that this is so much bigger than me. There’s been times when this has become so hard as an entrepreneur. But it’s not about me. I was called. I have to do this. So the days that I want to give up, I give up and then the next morning I start over.

Part of our mission is to dispel those Bronx stereotypes: that we don’t read here, that we’re poor, that all we are is liquor stores and sneaker stores. We see a lot of those businesses preying on the Bronx demographic. That’s what Ty Allen Jackson was speaking to. That we’re more than that.

We complain about it, but the reason that it exists is because we allowed it to happen. Even if you’re not buying anything, you’re still supporting it. Even if you’re not standing on line to buy Jordans, you’re not using your privilege and voice to let those businesses know they’re not welcome here.

I have privilege because I knew from a young age the power of literature, the power of getting my education. A lot of my peers were not molded the same way I was. I may not have 'white privilege,' but I have privilege and I’m going to use that to keep it here.

A lot of what I see is that anyone from the Bronx – not even from just the Bronx – but anyone from the inner city who receives an education... They come up personally, and then they leave.

Yes, and that leaves a lot of room for outside people to come in. I see that in teaching as well. I'm curious, have you thought of the types of sections your bookstore will have? I’m sure you’ve come up with some creative ones.

When you come to The Lit. Bar, you’ll be able to speak to our BookTenders and find out what they’re reading. If you want to browse on your own, we’ll have shelf talkers with little blurbs about the books.

I want The Lit. Bar to be like a pharmacy. I want you to come in with your ailments, so to speak, and you go to the section that says, ’25 books to help you get you through a quarter-life crisis,’ ’30 books African Americans need to read,’ ‘Families crazier than yours.’ I want it to feel like you’re browsing a Buzzfeed article.

I would always go straight to the nonfiction section of a bookstore. But if you label your sections by interest and keep them changing all the time, you’ll be exposed to fiction and nonfiction on the same topic.

I’m so excited for these featured sections. I love going to bookstores, but I often walk out with nothing. I feel like I have to look through hundreds and hundreds of books, and I just get overwhelmed.

Another huge section will be our local authors. We’re going to have a consignment program where we give local Bronx authors an opportunity to get their books on shelves, to give them a platform to prove themselves so that they can get into bookstores like Barnes & Noble.

I can't believe The Lit. Bar has been in the works for less than two years. I’m already imagining the ripple effects. Let’s say you help promote local authors, and then they do make it into a mainstream bookstore… You are helping change the voices in mainstream media.

Exactly. They have to prove that they can garner the attention on shelves, but how can you do that if you’re selling books out of the trunk of your car?

Have you thought of what the layout will be? I’m trying to visualize what your place will look like. I know you have this 'graffiti and chandelier' aesthetic in mind. I also read you’re planning on having a children’s Kiddie Liter. section.

As a verbal tour: I’m thinking of having aesthetics that are normally associated with the Bronx, like graffiti and pipes and concrete. So I want to have concrete floors and maybe acid wash them. I want to have a graffiti mural, and have a featured piece or pieces throughout the store, but then do elegant touches. A chandelier, textures on the table... It won’t be fancy sh-mancy, but you’ll get that urban classical vibe. I made that up. Don’t go Googling urban classic.*laughs* Urban chic.

I was skeptical about the Kiddie Liter. section. But it works at the BookBar in Denver. I told Nicole I didn’t want to do kid’s books at all, but she said I had to at least stock the classics. That a big part of the business is gifts for children.

Since there’s no children bookstore around here, as well as no bookstore around here, I do want to create a space for children. But because I am conscious that we do sell wine, we want to keep Kiddie Liter. towards the back of the store. As far as the comfort level of kids bringing their kids into a wine bar, it’s the same thing as going out to Olive Garden and having a glass of wine with your dinner.

Some think the early exposure of technology to children breaks reading habits. How do you feel about TV shows, online games… all the things that are consuming time and deterring people, children specifically, from reading? Also, how do you feel about eBooks?

Our mission goes beyond literature. I have a very strong opinion about the direction TV has gone. I hardly watch TV anymore, not only because I don’t have time, but because it’s disgusting. Especially as a minority woman, I don’t like how I’m being represented. And that’s what I see young people who look like me, emulating on social media. You know, these women are beautiful and rich, and what little girl wouldn’t be attracted to that? I have to make a conscious effort to rehabilitate myself from that because it is entertaining. I watch it with a certain level of consciousness. But a ten-year-old is not developed enough where they can separate it. I even see adults trying to emulate those lifestyles. It’s not realistic, it’s not getting you anywhere in life, it’s not sustainable.

As far as eBooks go, all the sales data shows that eBooks and print books will co-exist. The media has finally picked up that fact, but there’s still a lot of educating to do.

I know you’ve probably been asked this question a lot, but what do you enjoy reading?

No one has ever asked me that. People in my everyday life have asked me that, but in all the interviews that I’ve done, they’re more intrigued by the symbolism of the project and the mission. I’m trying to steer the conversation towards the literary aspect. So thank you for asking.

That’s hard to answer because I mostly read nonfiction. And in nonfiction types of books, you’ll get the author pouring out their life’s work into that one book, and then you don’t hear from them again. Many times they have writers to help them; so it’s them, but it’s not them.

I can give you some recent ones I’ve been captured by. Kristen Harris, The Nightingale. My first historical fiction book and now I’m obsessed with the genre. It takes place in France during German occupation. It basically tells the women’s fight during World War II. The dynamics in that story have helped me cope with the silence on racial matters in current events. I should blog on that soon.

When I do stray away into fiction, that’s what I’m looking for. It has to be something that I can get something out and apply it. I find that the more I become in love with my life, the more I gravitate towards nonfiction, the more I want to be grounded in reality. When I used to read fiction as a child, I used to read it to escape. But the more I become grounded in my reality, the more I want to learn things from the books I read. 'I want to Google this author when I’m done and follow them on social media and reach out to them.'

My favorite author growing up was Roald Dahl and my favorite book growing up was probably The Giving Tree. When you get older, you get it.

As a teenager, I got into urban fiction. It gets a bad rap, but it gets a lot of black children reading, so I’ll take it. The genre is not the same anymore though. If I were to recommend urban fiction books, they’d be ones published in the 90s because those books didn’t glorify the fast life. It was just a reflection, you saw yourself and the people around you in those stories, they spoke of the perils of those lifestyles. There was a lesson even though there was entertainment in the story. But the genre has changed, so I kind of turned my nose up against it, too. But I do have an appreciation for it because it got us reading.

Representation. I hear you. Okay, I must ask, where will The Lit. Bar be located?

At this point I’ve expanded my search to Hunts Point, Melrose, and Longwood neighborhoods. Everything in the South Bronx is fair game. It’s important for me to be in the South Bronx, even though the Bronx as a whole needs a bookstore. It’s because a lot of our art community is concentrated here. Because the neighborhood is gentrified, it’s important to land The Lit. Bar on Plymouth Rock.

The people that you see coming into places like Harlem and the South Bronx, well they're being pushed out of Long Island City and Williamsburg. I do support them in trying to live somewhere affordable. It’s really the real estate developers and our local politicians, that’s really their responsibility to make sure this transition happens in a healthy way so that people are not displaced. But the people on the front end of it are the ones receiving the backlash. You see a white person walking in the South Bronx, and you see some animosity there. I want to create a haven for us to actually become real neighbors.

We have people from other cities, other states, recognizing our value, and coming here to build everything you see going on here in this neighborhood. I’m not against that, but I do want to make sure that Bronx natives are represented here.

One of the developers out here put up a billboard that said 'Piano District.' They tried to rebrand the South Bronx, the Piano District. A lot of people were offended. The billboard said, 'Architecture, fine dining, luxury waterfront living coming soon.' People started throwing paint at the billboard. I was so embarrassed for my community. I’m angry about the billboard too; I’m really upset about it. But you’re only perpetuating Bronx stereotypes by protesting in that manner. I’m not saying to let it slide, I’m saying let’s be smart about it.

So what I did was I called up that real estate broker. One of their brokers has his face plastered on a building, so I asked for that particular guy. And I said, ‘I’m an entrepreneur and I want to help build that bridge between your interests and our interests here. What will you do to support me?’ They invited me to their office and I met the owner of the company that put up that billboard. At the time, I didn’t have a complete business plan; I was just a girl from the Bronx who wanted to open up a bookstore.

They’ve been working with me ever since. I can’t really vouch for their motives because I haven’t really seen it come into fruition yet. But I can say that they have been willing to talk to me and they have come up with prospective spaces that they don’t even own, to help connect me to a property owner who can support my business today since they haven’t even broken ground yet. I’ll be able to say later when I see that relationship pan out, how dedicated they are to what they presented to me so far. So far, it’s been positive.

How soon are you looking to move into a space?

I just came from looking at two prospective spaces. I’m ready to sign on the dotted line. I’m self-funding. I just got off the phone with Veronica Liu, the founder of Word Up. She just gave me some insight that it might be beneficial for me to take advantage of this momentum that I have in the press and in the community, and start my crowdfunding campaign sooner than I thought I would. We’re planning on open spring of 2017, or sooner if we can.

I’m kind of glad the first property I had didn’t come through last November like it was supposed to. Because in this past year, my business plan has turned into a beast, my training has become more valuable, my connections have grown, my relationships with the community has reached a personal level. I even let some strangers into my private Facebook.

I’m crying all the time. You should see the letters I get. One, they’re excited about the bookstore. And then I get the people who are touched by the mission, and I’m getting people who are touched by my journey. Just my tenacity to see this through – and coming from the same place they come from – is giving other people inspiration. I’m always in tears. My family has grown so much.


Fun Fact

Noëlle Santos is an ESTJ according to an online Myers-Briggs Personality Test. This personality is nicknamed "The Executive."

They nailed it. As much as I wanted to be offended by the ‘weaknesses,’ I acknowledge that they were all things I have either had to overcome, things I still make conscious efforts to shift from, or things I view as strengths. *laughs* Except for the weakness ‘difficult to relax.’ I’ve always been ready to act silly.

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