The Woman Working to Open the Bronx's Only Bookstore

Last year, to huge public outcry, the Barnes & Noble in the Bronx closed—leaving the borough of 1.4 million people with no bookseller. Noëlle Santos wants to change that.

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May 31 2017, 5:50pm

Photo courtesy of Noëlle Santos

"People have been sleeping on the Bronx for too long," says Noëlle Santos, who's lived in New York's northernmost borough her entire life. After decades of hard-won community building among deep city neglect, the Bronx is now on its way to becoming New York's latest development bonanza, and Santos wants to save what she can before it's too late. "We have all these arts and cultural institutions here. There are intellectuals, families, people building communities that are thriving."

Hoping to help that culture flourish, Santos is working to open the borough's newest bookstore, which will also be its only one. She's calling it Lit Bar, because it will serve wine and, she hopes, be lit as hell.

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There's no general interest bookseller serving the Bronx's 1.4 million residents because the last one, a Barnes & Noble, closed in November. When a petition Santos helped circulate couldn't save it, she found herself wanting to do more. "I lived at that Barnes & Noble," she says. A new, local bookstore seemed like the only solution. "Because literature impacted me so personally, I really felt like it was a higher calling. Coming from the South Bronx gives me an advantage, because all I know is persevering under pressure. There was no one more qualified than me to do this."

As a child, Santos disliked reading — "[it] used to be my punishment from my mom when I acted out" she says. But in junior high, she found books that spoke to her experience of living in the Bronx and developed a book club of sorts with her friends: Unable to each buy their own copy, they'd take turns reading novels like Sistah Soulja's The Coldest Winter Ever or Sapphire's Push, stories about drugs, teen pregnancy, and young black women like them who were determined to take a different path. "The way some people see themselves reflected in hip-hop, I saw myself in urban fiction," she says. "The characters looked like me, they spoke like me, they had neighbors like mine. It was the first time I saw myself reflected in the media."

The Coldest Winter Ever spoke particularly to her, because like its titular character Winter Santiaga, Santos benefitted from her father's established street reputation. "Even though I come from the South Bronx and Soundview" — two of the borough's poorest neighborhoods — "I had the best education, never knew poverty or hunger or homelessness. I had opportunities my neighbors did not." Her grandmother lived in a wealthier East Bronx neighborhood, so her mother used that address to register Santos at Lehman High School, one of the best in the city. "Even though I come from here I have privilege. It's not white privilege, but it's still privilege," she says.

She moved out of home at 16 to go to nearby Lehman College, which had a credit-sharing program with her high school. Inspired by the independent businesses her mother and grandmother ran, including an after-school program, Santos studied HR and business management. Like most everything she'd done since high school, she took this route because she hoped its practicality would take her away from home.

"For a long time, I measured my success by how far away I could get from here," she says. Away from her father's drug dealing, from the high unemployment rate, from a place that she felt was a dead end even though its residents were gradually wringing recovery out of the pervasive blight, catastrophic fires, and redlining that indifferent city officials allowed to run rampant beginning in the 1970s. "I associated the Bronx with the street lifestyle I'd grown up around, and I was judging my hometown the same way many outside people judge it," Santos admits.

Santos at Lit Bar's debut event in December 2016

But that stigma around the Bronx has also seen recent change, fueled mostly by those same outsiders. Manhattan developers who exhausted their prospects in Brooklyn over the last twenty years have turned their attention north, snatching up large parcels of land in the South Bronx and, since 2015, aggressively pushing a reshaping of the area into a chic, "post-industrial" neighborhood. With outside money pouring in and rents rising, 71 percent of Bronxites are at risk for displacement from a borough with the lowest rate of homeownership in the city.

Whether to fight or adapt to that displacement has created a rift among locals, with anti-gentrification activists squaring off against a handful of development-friendly natives. A particular flashpoint is Majora Carter, a Bronx native twenty years Santos's senior and an informal ally of Lit Bar, whose Edison bulb-lit coffee shop Santos selected for our interview. Over the past ten years Carter has turned a MacArthur-winning environmental activism career, which she began with a 2001 campaign to fight delivery truck pollution in the asthma-plagued South Bronx, into a consulting business for companies looking to move into the borough. While Santos considers her an inspiring model for how Bronx natives can improve their home, many residents consider her a turncoat; a recent fight over a new FreshDirect distribution hub in Hunts Point pitted Carter, acting as a paid "community liaison" for the company, against the very anti-pollution group she founded in 2001.

"I'm getting flak from activists who say they won't support Lit Bar until they know the 'real relationship' with Majora Carter," Santos says. "She's not involved at all, but I see her as someone who's here doing the work, rather than just complaining like some activists. [FreshDirect was] gonna come here anyway, and I would prefer a Bronx environmentalist to be guiding them."

Because literature impacted me so personally, I really felt like it was a higher calling.

The activist who first raised this concern is Ed García Conde, another Bronx native and the editor of a popular local news blog. He grew up in the same generation as Carter, amid the worst years of the city's abandonment, and rejects the idea that survival requires accepting gentrification. "Of course there's truth to the idea that if it's going to happen, we should make sure people here benefit and capitalize on something inevitable," he says. "But doing business with your executioner doesn't make sense."

Especially, he adds, when devastating change is not yet guaranteed in the South Bronx: the condos haven't broken ground, transit options are sparse and unlikely to improve, and the neighborhood is still economically depressed. "Developers are taking a huge risk — it's a $600 million gamble. And we've witnessed it happen across the city, so we've had more time to prepare."

Santos is less optimistic. As she looks for a storefront with a late-2017 opening in mind, she's been courted by a number of property owners, including condo developers who want Lit Bar for their ground-floor retail. "I know they're thinking about me as a catalyst for them to bring similar businesses," she says. "They want to use me as their poster child, some little black girl from the Bronx that they helped, as if that would make everything all good."

This is exactly what Carter signifies to Conde and his fellow activists, and what they hope Santos won't become: an approachable face for people who don't live in the Bronx. "[Carter's] a godsend for white guilt. White people want to help, and here's this intelligent black woman from the South Bronx, and so of course they want to support her projects," he says. "But there are thousands of activists in the Bronx working and fighting every day, and they've been here for generations. Nos Quedamos and their founder Yolanda Garcia, for example, stopped gentrification here in the 90s. That's who we want younger people like Noëlle to remember."

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Regardless of her admiration for Carter, Santos says she's meeting with developers as reconnaissance, not necessarily collaboration, because she wants to stay a step ahead. "It's over for the Bronx. [Developers'] attitude is to make their real estate investment and get out, and that's already happened, so I'm going to do everything I can to preserve Bronx culture as much as I can as one person: the food, the music, the language, the faces — brown, Latina faces."

Recently, she's turned her reading away from affirming escapism to reality. She picks up nonfiction more than anything else these days, particularly books by self-help gurus, for self-promotion and business tips. "Being a bookseller was never a dream of mine until I found out that Barnes & Noble was closing," she says. "Until then, I figured I'd progress as an HR professional. But I was called to do something else. Once you get a taste of what your life is gonna be like when you're focusing on your dreams..." She trails off, considering the day when she'll finally be able to quit her day job. "I'm gonna be broke, but so happy. I can't wait."