When the Barnes & Noble in Bay Plaza closed for good in 2016, it looked like bookstores in the Bronx were all but extinct, before Noëlle Santos opened the Lit. Bar in Mott Haven in 2019 to keep literacy alive in the borough.
The opening of the Lit. Bar injected life into what seemed like a dead business, with two other bookstores arriving on the scene following the store’s opening. In the summer of 2022, Edokia Bookstore also opened in Mott Haven and last month a bookstore called Bronx Bound Books began operating out of a kiosk within a mall at Bay Plaza.
The venues are vibrant and create buzz with celebrities often seen on site. For instance, Jada Pinkett Smith was at Santos’ store last month to discuss her new book.
Prior to the opening of the Lit. Bar, following the Barnes & Noble closure, the bookshops that did exist were largely for niche markets. There were bookstores for religious groups, along with stores associated with the borough’s educational institutions.
The end of Barnes and Noble
Santos, a life-long reader from the Soundview neighborhood, said that the closure of Barnes & Noble at Bay Plaza inspired her to open up a bookstore in the Bronx. She said that she signed onto a petition at the time calling on the giant book seller to return to the area but to no effect.
The Lit. Bar officially opened in April 2019, between 134th Street and Bruckner Boulevard, and was greeted to much fanfare, being the only brick-and mortar mainstream bookstore in the borough at the time. Santos had initially been operating on a temporary basis as a pop-up bookstore at the Bronx Museum of the Arts since December 2016.
The bookstore, which is noteworthy because it also includes a wine bar, draws big names from time to time.
For instance, on Oct. 15, Santos welcomed celebrity, actor and talk show host Pinkett Smith, who was there to tout her memoir “Worthy.”
Santos said that she and Pinkett Smith talked about literature — while the actress signed copies of her memoir that was released in October.
“We must have spoken for over half an hour — just talking about books,” Santos said. “We discussed the books that she had read and I also recommended new titles for her collection.”
The two also discussed Pinkett Smith’s book, as well as her daughter Willow’s upcoming book, “Black Shield Maiden” with Jess Hendel, which is scheduled for publication in May 2024.
Pinkett Smith is one of the many celebrities to have visited. Others include Jennifer Lopez, Mary J. Blige, Fat Joe, Slick Rick, Omarion, Alfre Woodard, Amanda Seales, Malik Yoba, D-Nice, June Ambrose, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Kerry Washington.
Santos has won many plaudits for bringing bookshops back, including from elected officials.
“I am proud of the work of Lit. Bar owner Noëlle Santos, who, in 2019, opened the door to the Bronx’s only brick and mortar bookstore since the closing of the Barnes & Noble in Bay Plaza in 2016,” said Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson.
“It is my hope that others see the Bronx is a great place to open or expand their business, and our office is prepared and eager to provide all the guidance necessary to ensure this list of bookstores continues to expand.”
She also paid tribute to the owners and operators of Edokia Bookstore and Bronx Bound Books who have since followed.
Filling a need
Barnes & Noble in Bay Plaza opened in 1999 as the only mainstream bookstore in the borough. It was a fixture in the community for more than 15 years before closing its doors in 2016. The store was replaced by a Saks OFF 5TH, a subsidiary of Saks Fifth Avenue, in the summer of 2017.
Following its closure, Barnes & Noble committed to a return to the Bronx within 24-36 months, but never followed through on its promise. And Saks OFF 5TH left Bay Plaza after only two years, in August 2019.
Barnes & Noble currently has five store locations in Manhattan, two stores in Brooklyn as well as a location inside the Staten Island Mall.
“Despite our reputation, the Bronx reads and I’m incredibly proud to be a vessel that nurtures the book culture in this borough,” Santos said. “However, one bookstore (which has recently become three) for 2 million people within the literary capital of the world is wild to me.”
In March 2022, six years after the Barnes & Noble closing, Bronx natives Jaeydon McBayne and Hadiyah Braithwaite started a change.org petition to reopen the bookseller in Bay Plaza — and generated more than 600 signatures the first week, the Bronx Times reported at the time.
James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble, emailed Braithwaite shortly afterward to confirm that “the petition had been very well received” and that “a future Bronx storefront is in the works,” the Bronx Times reported.
Barnes & Noble has yet to announce firm plans that it will be returning to the borough and did not respond to the Bronx Times for an updated comment.
A few months after the petition was started, in the summer of 2022, the Bronx finally got its second bookstore, Edokia Bookstore.
Edokia, located on 2505 3rd Ave. in Mott Haven, also includes a café — similar to the previous Starbucks at the Bay Plaza Shopping Center, although significantly smaller in scale.
“Once Barnes & Noble left, we saw the need to take action and showcase the need for literacy growth in the Bronx,” said Francois Williams, owner of Edokia, who grew up in the South Bronx. “This is my way of giving back — and the only thing I can give back is what I know, which is education.”
This year, the operator of another entity, called Bronx Bound Books, started a GoFundMe page to obtain funds for a bookstore in Bay Plaza and raised nearly $13,000 in four months.
Bronx Bound Books, which originally started in 2019 by selling books throughout the region — by traveling to local hospitals, organizations, shelters, schools and farmers markets — officially moved into a kiosk within the mall at Bay Plaza on Oct. 1.
According to Latanya DeVaughn, the founder of Bronx Bound Books, she started the business by taking Ubers to various locations. She said she went to various venues equipped with books, boxes, tables and a wagon.
As her operation grew, she purchased the Bronx Bound Books’ official “book-mobile” — a van to help expand her visibility at local fairs.
“Ever since I was a kid, it’s been my dream to own a bookstore,” said DeVaughn, who works with the Jerome Gun Hill Business Improvement District, Montefiore Medical Center and La Central YMCA in Melrose, as well as the city’s Department of Education. “But this is something that doesn’t just make me happy — it helps the community by making books accessible and affordable, while also promoting literacy.”
According to DeVaughn, Bronx Bound Books’ Spanish literacy books are usually the quickest to fly off the shelves.
Although many in the Bronx see the need for a return of Barnes & Noble, the borough’s bookworms are seeing more independent bookstores emerge.
The trend shows no signs of abating. Other current bookstore initiatives in the borough include Bronx Is Reading, the Norwood Community Library, Wildflower, Locked and Lit, as well as the Literary Freedom Project.
“Literacy is the foundation of all learning, plus it’s fun and it’s sexy — and I hope that more projects can inspire more grassroots reading initiatives in the Bronx,” Santos added.
Reach Steven Goodstein at [email protected] or (718) 260-8326. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes