Brownstone Books, in Brooklyn's diverse Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, was founded in July of 2000, by Crystal Bobb-Semple, a trained urban planner. It was that training and memories of living in Bed-Stuy as child that led Bobb-Semple to open the 700-square-foot general bookstore in the area's Stuyvesant Heights Historic District.
Through her professional work in urban planning, Bobbs-Semple studied historic neighborhoods and gentrification across the nation. She knew that creating gathering places where residents could get together to talk, bring their children, and make plans was essential to creating a successful, cohesive community. "I knew that a bookstore was exactly the kind of business that would bring people together in that way," Bobbs-Semple told BTW. "This was a neighborhood that could really benefit from new retailers and businesses -- we filled a retail void. In our building, five commercial spots, including ours, all opened at around the same time -- a coffee shop, restaurant, art gallery, and salon."
These businesses banded together with others to create SOLA (the Shops of Lewis Avenue Merchants Association). The group has supported a number of events including a children's film festival, farmers' market, and flea market. Bobbs-Semple has also worked closely with the local Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. She told BTW that this has created extremely valuable networking opportunities, resulting in several large sales.
Bobbs-Semple credits the American Booksellers Association and the bookstore consulting firm Paz & Associates with providing useful training materials and constructive suggestions in launching Brownstone Books. To help finance the store, she received a modest revolving loan from the Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation, the country's oldest Community Development Corporation, founded through the efforts of then New York Senators Robert F. Kennedy and Jacob Javits in the 1960s during a bleak economic and social period in Bed-Stuy history.
Bobb-Semple's husband, Walston Bobbs-Semple, has also been involved in the business' development.
Brownstone Books is in all ways a community bookstore. To start, it distributes Bedford-Stuyvesant: A Cultural Heritage Guide (published by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce). The free guide is the first self-guided walking tour map for the architecturally, culturally, and historically significant neighborhood. According to Bobbs-Semple, the store's customer base, including many African-American and Caribbean-American patrons, drives her inventory selections. "We also carry a wide selection of classic and popular literature including bestsellers and required reading selections for schools," she said.
Brownstone's monthly adult book club has been "fantastic," Bobbs-Semple enthused. It attracts several dozen women and men, ages 25 to 70. Other popular monthly activities are a teen book club and a poetry night. Twice weekly story hours always draw a lively crowd. About three to five times a month, Bobbs-Semple said, the store hosts an author reading.
The Book Sense marketing materials are important for the store's promotions and displays. The monthly picks, shelf-talkers, and fliers from Book Sense have all "made me think about what we're doing in a more professional and packaged way," she said.
Surprisingly, Brownstone Books is not in a brownstone building, but Bobbs-Semple explained the name is "really descriptive of the lovely neighborhood." The bookstore is, however, in a 100-year-old building that was voted Best Storefront by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in the Greenest Block in Brooklyn Contest. --Nomi Schwartz