A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York. The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
By Nina Pajak
Once, the borough of Queens was like any other: filled with hardworking people from all walks of life and the conveniences they love and require. You know, like restaurants, movie theaters, supermarkets, clothing stores, plus Duane Reades, urgent care facilities and banks on every corner. And of course, bookstores. And then, the remaining Barnes & Noble stores in our fair corner of the city shuttered their windows, carted out the books, locked the doors and didn’t look back. With the exception of one, lone independent beacon in Astoria, Queens was left high and dry. It’s a wonder we can all still string sentences together, what with the words and. Uh. Stuff.
But what’s that? It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s The Queens Bookshop Initiative, comprising three former B&N employees who have banded together to bring back what we have lost. Their names are Vina, Natalie and Holly, and they are going to make this thing happen. They’ve been spending the last couple of months building community support and gaining momentum, and now they’ve officially launched the Kickstarter campaign to help fund a real-life, brick-and-mortar. In between planning their upcoming Independent Bookstore Day in Forest Hills and actively raising funds, they took a few moments to talk about their hopes, dreams, why it’s so important to bring another bookstore to Queens, and the benefits of an in-house pet.
Nina in New York: What do you think is special about the Queens literary community?
Vina C: There is so much potential in this borough, so many diverse voices and forms of creativity.
Natalie N: I think a new friend of ours explained it really well once so I’m going to borrow it. Queens has all these pockets of literary awesomeness going on. Everyone’s got poetry readings, lit fests, monthly meetings, workshops, etc. There are events and things going on everywhere in and out of Queens all the time. We had no idea the community was so large until we started tapping into it. It’s amazing how all of these groups are existing simultaneously all caring about the same things.
NINY: On your Kickstarter page you list a lot of amazing plans for your store, like a book club, a rewards program, and partnering with local charities. But let’s pretend that money and space are no objects. What do your dream bookstores look like? And since money and space are actual human concerns, what are some other unique aspects you hope to include in the real brick-and-mortar location once you open?
VC: It would be an absolute DREAM to have Stephen Powers paint a mural in our store (everyone should go to the Brooklyn Museum and see his exhibition; he has also taken over The Strand’s basement). I also want a wooden stage, where we can have open mic nights, story time, and maybe short plays performed by kids and adults. I have always wanted to create a bookish podcast. It would be so much fun to record it in our store, and have authors and those who are making an impact in our literary community be our guests. I would also want us to eventually be able to deliver books (same day) to our Queens customers, especially the elderly and for those who aren’t capable of accessing public transport.
NN: If money was no object I would go nuts. First of all, there would be those bookcase doors hidden everywhere, where if you happened to pull on a certain book, you would find a secret special room where we would probably have the coolest most exclusive book-nerd parties ever. There would also be a cute little cafe with homemade croissants and hot chocolate and Holly’s cookies. Oh man, Holly’s cookies. I’ve been imagining our children’s section and I want a really cozy rug to sit and have weekly story times on. Secretly, we’ve been discussing getting a projector and a pull-down screen so that we could do Friday night movie screenings. It would be adorable.
Holly N: A store pet, I cannot emphasize that enough. I want an approachable, hypoallergenic cat named Pages (or Paige, like Natalie prefers . . . audible pun) who will sit on your lap as you read in a nice plush chair. Also, comfortable but hidden reading nooks. Reading feels even more special if you’re in a tiny private space. Ideally, I want a store that will be organized and easy to shop, but will somehow retain that quirky, cozy, diamond in the rough feel you get when you dig through cluttered shelves for a hidden treasure. That will take some finesse.
NINY: Everyone likes to say that bookstores are dead. Tell those people why they’re wrong.
HN: Everyone who has ever said that to me has nothing to back it up with. They tell me that kindles are how people read now. I ask them if they have one. They say no, they prefer books themselves. And then I say, “yup, so does everyone else.” The reputation surrounding them seems to be stronger than the impact of the actual devices themselves. According to surveys done by Nielson Bookscan, e-books make up less than 25% of all books sold in the U.S., and physical book sales have gone up 3.8% from January of 2015 to January 2016. They also went up 2.4% from 2014-2015. Besides, books aren’t technology—they don’t need software upgrades, they don’t need to be charged, and they don’t get harder to read if the sun is too bright.
As for bookstores dying because of online retailers, well, that is a real threat. The thing is, the Amazon customer is not the bookshop customer. There will always be people who argue for the “convenience” and prices offered by the web. But what could be more convenient than browsing a shelf, finding something you love and bringing it home immediately? Even Amazon is dabbling with the idea of brick and mortar bookstores. Bookstores won’t die so long as people still want a place to share with their friends and families.
VC: It’s a reflex for me to have a sentimental rebuttal to that statement. But picture this: not having the ability to browse a local bookstore and build your own collection from a young age, bumping into someone who enjoys the same books as you do, or meeting someone at a reading who had the same opinions over your favorite book . . . these moments in a reader’s life can’t be experienced shopping online. You can’t pass on a book with your notes and thoughts, dog-eared on your favorite quotes on an electronic device. I think people enjoy that connection of feeling the pages, and that’s only one of a million reasons why bookstores will remain strong.
Nina Pajak is a writer living with her husband, daughter and dog in Queens. Connect with Nina on Twitter!