Still awaiting the return of Barnes and Noble

A Saks Off Fifth replaced the Barnes and Noble in the Mall at Bay Plaza

More than 20 months after closing the Bronx’s only bookstore, Barnes and Noble’s promised return has yet to materialize. Barnes and Noble in Co-op City closed almost two years ago, leaving the Bronx without a single general-interest bookstore. Corporate officials and Bronx politicians promised a swift return within 24 to 36 months but show no signs of progress.

The Bronx’s nearly 1.5 million residents are approaching two years without a bookstore, apart from a handful of religious, foreign language, or private university-owned book retailers. Once home to a thriving literary culture, the Bronx has struggled with a long decline in book availability. Barnes and Noble’s shutdown struck another blow to the chronically under-resourced borough.

The Bronx’s bibliophiles rallied behind the store and created an online petition that received more than 2,000 signatures, including several local officials, leading to the store’s decision to stay open. The impact of the grassroots effort, however, proved limited when the Barnes and Noble closed its doors in December 2016, rendering the Bronx a book desert in a harrowing end to two years of precarious survival. A department store, Saks Off Fifth, now sits in its place.

Barnes and Noble first planned to close in 2014, citing rising rents. The chain shuttered 71 of its stores between 2011-2017, according to Publishers Weekly.

Low-income communities like the Bronx struggle with book access nationwide. In an average community of concentrated poverty, only one book is available for every 300 children, compared to more affluent areas, which offer 13 books per child, according to a 2016 study conducted by education scholars from New York University.

Children who grow up without exposure to books are less likely to read as they grow older, according to a study in Reading Research Quarterly by literacy and communication scholars. This also poses consequences for low-income children’s cognitive function, which may become less advanced than their more advantaged peers. Such setbacks promote a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape.

But for Bronxites, lack of access does not indicate absence of desire.

“For book lovers, bookstores are more than bookstores,” Lorraine Currelley, executive director of the Bronx Book Fair, wrote in an email. “They’re retreats for kindred spirits.”

The Barnes and Noble first opened in the Bronx in 1999 under pressure from assemblyman Stephen B. Kaufman, who denounced the retailer’s decision to double the size of their store in Yonkers rather than opening a bookstore in the Bronx.

Kaufman condemned the store, calling it “Barnes and ignoble.” His diatribe rang loudly throughout the borough and into the corporate world, resulting in Barnes and Noble’s eventual move into the Mall at Bay Plaza in Co-op City.

“It became a spot for people throughout the Bronx to come and enjoy themselves,” said Kaufman. “It’s intellectual curiosity, it showed that people had a desire to learn.”

Barnes and Noble continues to pledge a return, but their plans remain murky. “Nothing to report yet,” said Mary Ellen Keating, the company’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications and Public Affairs. “We’re still looking at locations.”

Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, who represents Co-op City in the state government and supported the citizens’ petition to keep Barnes and Noble, is not aware of a concrete proposal from Barnes and Noble.

“When it shut down a few years ago, it was supposed to finalize a new operating plan, which we have not received yet,” said his chief of staff, John Collazzi. According to Collazzi, the retailer is searching for an adequately sized space in the Mall at Bay Plaza. He maintains hope that Barnes and Noble will keep its word.

“They’re in the process of analyzing a new store plan. It should be soon,” he said.

Several representatives from Prestige Properties and Development, the property owners of the Mall at Bay Plaza, had no knowledge of plans for a Barnes and Noble opening.

The state of access to books in the Bronx has ruptured the borough from its literary roots. For centuries, the Bronx was home to a thriving literary culture.

“The area that was to become the Bronx was used as a locale by writers on the colonial period, both great and obscure,” wrote Lloyd Ultan and Barbara Unger in Bronx Accent: A Literary and Pictoral History of the Borough.

Bronx poetry thrived during the Revolutionary War, where many battles were fought. Decades later, in the onset of the 19th century, Washington Irving immortalized Spuyten Duyvil in his 1809 book Knickerbocker History, while Edgar Allan Poe built his last home in Fordham, where, according to Smithsonian Magazine, he wrote his famed final poem, “Annabel Lee.”

As the Bronx urbanized, the narratives rising from the borough diverged from increasingly obsolete themes of solitude and nature, instead turning toward urban adventure. Jack Kerouac’s famed Road began in a train station on 242nd Street, according to the New York Times, after he attended a year of high school in Riverdale. James Baldwin, a fellow Bronx high schooler, picked up his predecessors’ literary baton to capture the racial, sexual, and political tensions of his time.

The last few decades have marked a stark difference in the Bronx’s lettered past.

Though many bookstores have struggled due to the rising dominance of Amazon, an increasing number of independent bookstores are slowly opening throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens as book sales are rising across the country, according to the Association of American Publishers. The Bronx, however, has not had more than one general-interest bookstore in decades.

Communities fare better with local bookstores than corporate chains. Local retailers “keep 3.3 times as much revenue in the local economy as do their chain competitors,” according to a study from the American Booksellers Association. Keeping money in the local economy is even more urgent in low-income communities like the Bronx.

The Bronx is also at a disadvantage when it comes to online book access––the borough has 297 free WiFi hotspots, compared to 691 in Brooklyn and 1,603 in Manhattan, according to New York City Open Data.

Libraries compensate for much of the dearth of reading resources in the Bronx. Each New York Public Library branch is equipped with WiFi and several computers. The New York Public Library secured historic financial support for several branches in 2016, including three in The Bronx, after a significant increase in city funding, according to the library’s most recent annual report. In the beginning of October, the library broke ground on an $8 million renovation of the Van Cortlandt Library that will more than double the size of the current branch.

“I visit many of the libraries in the Bronx and they’re always filled with an intergenerational group of Bronx residents,” said Currelley. “The absence of bookstores has increased library attendance and has increased the number of readers.”

The Bronx Library Center is the fifth most attended library in New York City with over 718,000 yearly visitors, but only has a circulation rate of less than 586,000 books, compared to Flushing Library’s catalog of more than 2.2 million books, according to a 2015 study from the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City-based nonpartisan think tank.

Upset by chronic underinvestment, the closure of the Barnes and Noble galvanized Bronxites into action.

“The Bronx Book Fair’s mission is to increase literacy and readership in the Bronx as well as to connect book lovers of all ages to Bronx authors,” said Currelley.

Saraciea Fennell, a South Bronx native and book publisher, spearheaded the Bronx Book Festival and started a literacy program called The Bronx is Reading, which donates books to local school libraries. Rebekah Shoaf also operates pop-up bookstores called Boogie Down Books, with an emphasis on youth and educational literature.

Locals are also building brick and mortar stores to serve as community spaces. Noëlle Santos, a Soundview native and former human resources and payroll director for a Manhattan technology firm, crowdfunded nearly $155,000 last year to open an independent bookstore and wine bar in Mott Haven called The Lit. Bar.

“While my community’s lifeline was up for negotiation, I was somewhere in the South Bronx seizing the opportunity to create a sustainable, more accessible bookshop that addresses the shortcomings of big-box stores––reflecting and serving the unique needs of the communities they operate in,” wrote Santos, who could not be reached for comment, on her Indiegogo fundraising page.

According to her website, Santos plans to open The Lit. Bar on Alexander Avenue by November, the 23 month-mark without a bookstore in the Bronx. Her store windows are covered over with brown paper, but her website conveys steady progress, with painted walls and newly built shelves ready for books.

The Lit. Bar on Alexander Avenue is slated to open by November

“Our opening date is at the mercy of the NYC Department of This and That,” she wrote.

Even if Barnes and Noble delivers on its promise to return to a location in the Mall at Bay Plaza, the site will still be restrictive for most Bronx residents. The Bx12 bus is the only nearby public transportation; this line only services a limited area in the Bronx, meaning a trip to the store would consist of at least two legs for most locals.

The Bx12 line, the Mall at Bay Plaza’s only public transportation option, serves a limited portion of the Bronx

Kaufman is skeptical that Barnes and Noble will return.

“I don’t see it happening,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

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