Independent Bookstore Day: in some ways, Noëlle Santos couldn’t have picked a better day to officially open the doors to The Lit. Bar, the long-awaited bookstore and wine bar coming to the South Bronx on Saturday.
In October 2014, Barnes & Noble, located in the Bronx’s rapidly gentrifying Mott Haven neighborhood, announced it would close at the end of the year, leaving an entire borough of 1.5 million New Yorkers without a single general-interest bookstore. Now, starting on Saturday, April 27, more than four years after her initial conception, Santos will host a series of free grand opening events and finally launch the only independent general-interest bookstore in the Bronx.
Santos told Bookselling This Week that despite the struggles along the way, she wouldn’t have done anything differently throughout her four-year journey. Her path to opening an independent bookstore was one of false starts and frustration; permitting, construction, and real estate challenges; and brutally hard work and personal struggles, but it also brought her to the attention of the national news media and enhanced her personal brand and mission as an entrepreneur.
As an Afro-Latina woman born to a teen mother in the South Bronx, the poorest Congressional district in the U.S., Santos has faced barriers and discrimination in her life, and this was no different. However, she said, what she accomplished during this experience is more than she could have imagined.
“I’m grateful for my journey and even all of the setbacks, because now that I’m on the other side of it, everything that went wrong seems like it was for a reason,” said Santos. “Every time something was taken away from me, I got something bigger and better. This project, the space, my following, the design of the store — everything is better than how I imagined, and I feel like it was all meant to be. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life: it was a lot of personal sacrifices, a lot of tears, a lot of disappointment, so while I wouldn’t have chosen for it to be so hard, this journey has taught me so much about myself as a woman, about what I’m capable of. Opening this business changed my life.”
Santos had always been proud to be someone who “quote unquote 'made it out the hood,'” she said, and when she first started thinking about opening the store, she was living a successful life with a cushy, six-figure career as an HR and accounting professional, a great relationship, and a sense that things could only get better from here.
“I was always one of those kids who measures their success by how far they could get away from the Bronx,” she said. “On this journey, I lost my relationship, I left my career, I lit my whole life on fire, my entire lifestyle changed, but I’ve never been happier. Had I not taken a beating on this journey, I would still be that person. It’s stretched me and let me know what I’m made of.”
Santos’ story began in October 2014, when the South Bronx native signed a Facebook petition to save the Baychester Barnes & Noble, the borough’s only general interest bookstore at the time. In January 2015, she established The Lit. Bar as a legal entity, and in April 2015, completed Paz & Associates’ week-long “Owning a Bookstore” course in Florida.
In October 2015, Santos entered Citi Foundation’s statewide business plan competition and the next September won $7,500, which she used to launch the Lit. Bar Pop-Up Shop at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. In 2015 and 2016, Santos moonlighted at bookstores across New York City for free in exchange for mentorship; then in March 2017, she launched the hybrid book club Readers & Shakers, which in 2019 is up to 900+ members.
In January 2017, Santos announced her “Let’s Bring a Goddamn Bookstore to the Bronx” online crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, which brought in over $170,000 and incorporated a book-centric rap video featuring Santos. In October, after months of searching, she signed a lease for The Lit. Bar’s permanent home in Mott Haven. In February 2018, she left her full-time job and in March got permission from the City of New York to begin building out her store. Throughout that year, Santos took on the difficulties of construction and permits, and dove into the bewildering bureaucratic process that is getting a New York City liquor license.
Today, the store at 131 Alexander Avenue in the South Bronx’s Mott Haven neighborhood is “amazing, glorious,” said Santos. The ground floor is 1,700 square feet, and below that is an empty finished basement likely to be reserved for workshops and events. The walls inside and out are covered in giant graffiti murals, chandeliers hang from the ceiling, and a real 14-foot tree provided by a local florist towers over the kids’ section. Leaning against her 22-foot-long row of bookcases made from wood and plumbing pipes is what Santos calls her “Belle ladder,” as seen in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.
The bar where patrons will eat and drink is made out of used books donated by the community, and will serve a seasonal menu, along with wine, beer, cider, and nonalcoholic drinks. Currently, The Lit. Bar has an inventory of about 4,000 titles, but Santos also plans to implement a buy-back program for books bought at the store, which would make the inventory more affordable while still allowing her to curate the selection, she said.
The Lit. Bar also features a number of specialty displays and sections such as “Dear White People,” featuring books on race relations; displays with names inspired by hip hop lyrics and culture, including “Mind Right, Money Right” for self-help books; “Cuz This Is Thriller” for thriller novels; and “This Is for the Hustler in You” for business books; and a shelf of books recommended by late rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle.
To get started, Santos currently has three-part time cross-trained staff members, or “bxsellers,” as she has dubbed them, who will help her get through the next month as they learn the basics of running the store. Santos said she will be adding to her staff over the next few weeks and will also launch a Well-Read Black Girl book club, kicking off with With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo (HarperTeen, May 7).
Since her bookselling journey first made headlines in 2016, Santos has been profiled in scores of articles in major publications, from the New York Times to Forbes to Crain’s New York Business to Glamour to Essence, which named her to the magazine’s 2018 “Woke 100 Women” List. Recently, she has made several television appearances, including on PBS’ The Great American Read, Good Day NY, and The Today Show, and was profiled as part of HBO and Vanity Fair’s #BecauseofHer campaign.
Santos told BTW, which has been writing about her since 2016, that she gets so many media requests it’s difficult to respond to all of them, and she has become well-known enough to get recognized on the street. The latter effect is likely also because Santos has been documenting her Lit. Bar journey on Instagram, especially through her Stories, so many followers feel like they have been with her the whole time.
The store’s growing profile and the energy this has generated has also helped Santos refine and expand the mission of the store, she said. She wants to show others in her community that they can do what she did, by running entrepreneurship workshops, incorporating a podcast, and inviting members of the publishing world to come speak to local authors. Essentially, she said, “I want to be a bridge to the publishing industry for marginalized communities like mine. I’ve been really well-received as a woman of color during this process but there have been some cringeworthy moments. I also want to bring awareness of our community to people already in the industry.”
Going forward, she hopes to gauge what parts of her experience the community wants to hear about most and create programming accordingly; eventually, she hopes The Lit. Bar will be seen as a media company that also sells books.
“I get so many inquiries about how I did it, and I want to mentor people, but I can’t do it one-on-one, so now I want to get creative and communicate to people en masse everything I’ve learned,” she said. “I want to reach as many people as I can and teach them to make change in their own communities. I want to encourage them to identify a need in the world and fill it because the politicians and the corporations are not as passionate as they are about things in their community.”
Santos’ grand opening event series follows two soft launch events in March, which featured female entrepreneurs and authors. This month’s free opening event series will be called “Bookstore & Chill: A Bronx Tale by The Lit. Bar” and is divided into chapters: “Preface,” on Thursday, April 25, is a VIP party featuring an intimate tour of the store exclusively for top crowdfunding campaign donors. “Chapter One,” on Saturday, April 27, will feature a ribbon-cutting ceremony at noon, when Santos will be introduced by the president of the Bronx Chamber of Commerce, to be followed by festivities including a DJ and a photo booth; “Chapter Two” later that night will be an invitation-only party for friends.
“Chapter Three” on Sunday is for the kids and will showcase Kiddie Lit’r, The Lit. Bar’s children’s book club and programming arm. The day will feature a giveaway and signing of the Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire with author Ty Allan Jackson, sponsored by the local State Farm branch, and a This Is My Street book kit giveaway featuring Elmo, as well as balloons and activities. The series caps off on Tuesday, April 30, with “Acknowledgments,” where Santos, in conversation with Forbes contributor and author Sara Bliss on “Making the Lit. Bar,” will tell her story and take questions from the audience. There will also be giveaway of Bliss’ new book, Take the Leap, which features Santos along with business luminaries like Barbara Corcoran and Bobbi Brown.
Santos said she hopes she isn’t forgetting any of the essential nuts and bolts, but beyond that she is feeling excited and full of gratitude, She is thankful for the support of her local Bronx community and of her immediate neighborhood, where many of the businesses are owned by people of color who have helped sponsor her opening events and offered their assistance and advice.
To all of the independent booksellers who helped her along her way, Santos told BTW that she wants to say, ”Thank you, thank you, thank you,” with a special shout-out “to all the badass female owners in this independent bookstore industry who helped me along the way,” including Nicole Sullivan, owner of BookBar in Denver, and New York City store owners Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of Greenlight Bookstore, Veronica Liu of Word Up Community Bookshop, Emma Straub of Books Are Magic, and Lexi Beach of The Astoria Bookshop.
“I had no experience, I never worked in retail or bookselling, but I was embraced by the bookselling community,” said Santos. “I’m so grateful to everyone who came together to give me the mentorship and the resources to do this amazing thing that not only opened doors for myself, but through me has opened doors for so many other people. And they didn’t have to. I can’t imagine any other industry that is as tight-knit or as generous with information.”
Along her journey to build a business in a stigmatized industry, Santos said she realized just how many similarities there are between the indie bookstore industry and the Bronx.
“We’re the underdogs and we’re facing a lot of challenges; however, there is so much beauty and talent and grit and strength that comes out of that harshness,” said Santos. “Plus, the Bronx and indie bookstore industry are experiencing a renaissance at the same time.”
Booklovers who are interested in attending the grand opening of the Lit. Bar can get free tickets to the opening events here. To keep up with Santos on her journey, follow her on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and at TheLitBar.com.