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Is a Community Still a Community Without a Bookstore?

The Bronx is hoping to not find out

I remember when Paperbacks Plus, the last independent bookstore in the Bronx, shut its doors. When my boss rolled down the metal shutters for the final time on her storefront in Riverdale—the affluent area that has always had a fractious history with the rest of the borough—every neighborhood mourned its loss. Customers would trek from all over the borough—from Hunts Point, Williamsbridge, and City Island just for the opportunity to grab the latest Murakami, to discuss Michael Chabon’s newest title, or to pore over Paul Auster’s expansive Brooklyn landscapes. Some patrons would take three buses and a subway before climbing the steep hill to get to our store—all in the pursuit of a new book and, most importantly, to talk about their love of reading with the staff, many of whom had relationships with them that spanned decades. 

We closed in 2008, leaving one small Barnes & Noble in far-flung Co-Op City remaining as the sole bookseller in the entire borough—home to 1.4 million people, more than 10 colleges, and a household median income of only $34,300. Earlier this week, this one improbable, inaccessible bookstore announced it would be shutting down come January, leaving the nation’s poorest urban county bereft of its last bookstore. Following a quick and ardent campaign, executives reversed their decisions yesterday, announcing the store would stay open for two more years. 

The Bronx was my home for 10 years. Manhattan College brought me to the borough I hadn’t dared visit during my Long Island childhood, save for a trip to the Zoo or the Botanical Garden. I had a disjointed relationship with the Bronx from the beginning; my college didn’t fit in with its neighborhood, and its sheltered students kept themselves far afield from their poorer, underprivileged neighbors. What resulted was a self-contained oasis of intellectual pursuit that spanned two disparate neighborhoods; a school half-built in Riverdale’s affluent backyard, and half-alongside the more diverse, and potentially dangerous Kingsbridge. I moved off-campus to Kingsbridge the summer after my freshman year, taking a job at a small independent bookstore “up the hill” soon thereafter.

Paperbacks Plus provided me with my first interaction with true Bronxites—customers with a hardscrabble work ethic who also craved Bret Easton Ellis. Young teens with thick Dominican accents that lined up for midnight Harry Potter releases. Holocaust survivors who came in to talk about Tova Mirvis and the search for modern Jewish identity. Within the bookstore, all patrons were equal. The dichotomy between Kingsbridge, Riverdale, and the class implications that came with zip code and race distinctions dissipated between our bookshelves.

My time spent on campus created a barrier against the borough’s realities of poverty, violence, and generational disenfranchisement. But at the bookstore, I was inculcated with the hard-nosed attitude and dogged persistence that allow Bronx residents to persist, if not always succeed. These patrons loved reading, and didn’t take shit from anyone: They didn’t care if there was only one independent bookstore left in the borough, so long as there was at least one. Bronxites have made due for decades—doing more with less than any other residents in New York City.

When the the Bronx’s last bookstore threatened to close this week, the tragedy was in the message it sent to the rest of the city—that the borough is still a cultural desert, bereft of the eminently accessible intellectual pursuits of Brooklyn, or the savvy worldliness that comes from living in Manhattan. The loss of a chain bookstore provided a discomfiting narrative of a low-income, crime-ridden borough so uncouth as to eschew such cultural necessities as a bookseller.

The Bronx has never been known for having a bustling literary culture on par with Brooklyn, but we had, within our bookstore, a culture of our own. Our authors might not have been our neighbors, as they are throughout the community bookstores of Boerum Hill and Park Slope, but we still read their stories with vigor. We might not have had the luxury of bespoke reading lists curated by MFA-wielding staffers, but we always made sure to custom-order a title we could not stock. We strived to serve our community, if for no other reason than the acknowledgement that no one else would. And when Paperbacks Plus had to close its doors, we made due with a chain store when others would turn their noses up to such an encroachment.

The Bronx has its rough reputation for reasons I’ve witnessed first-hand. I’ve lived alongside the Major Deegan Expressway, near bars that have shut down after narcotics raids, and heard apocryphal stories of local crackheads getting high in my building’s foyer during blizzards. Despite the unavoidable challenges the borough has faced since the 1980s, there is a commercial and industrial re-emergence. Blocks away from the apartment where I heard a man get shot to death lies a brand-new shopping center, built on the ashes of the shuttered Stella D’Oro factory after labor relations broke down and the baker moved operations to a union-free factory in Ashland, Ohio. A mere ten blocks away, a new mega-mall opened this week alongside the elevated Broadway subway tracks. The dilapidated gas station on the corner has been supplanted by a Party City, a TJ Maxx, and an Aldi. A bookstore has yet to replace Paperbacks Plus up the hill in Riverdale, but not for lack of want. Former State Assemblyman Stephen B. Kaufman resorted to shaming Barnes & Noble when they expressed reluctance to move into the borough in 1998, all but daring them to finally serve a borough with a thirst for literary culture.

It’s tempting as an outsider to see the Co-Op City Barnes and Noble's struggle to stay open as a sign of literary culture's importance in its impoverished, maligned borough. Much harder, however, is the acknowledgment that the borough’s lack of a literary institution is due to neglect, rather than disinterest—made all the more unavoidable due to the swift backlash to remain open at least another two years. As we do with the novels we cherish, we must seek a deeper understanding of the characters behind this narrative—to provide the same reverence for this borough’s socioeconomic, sociocultural complexity as we would for the books we live to examine and understand. So often in literature, we love an underdog and make allowances for the personal imperfections they embody. So too must we do so for a community strugging to regain its cultural and economic footing.