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One Woman's Quest to Bring Books Back to The Bronx

By  Angely Mercado and Eddie Small | July 8, 2016 2:00pm | Updated on October 31, 2016 2:56pm

 Noëlle Santos, the Bronx native behind the proposed bookstore and wine bar in the South Bronx.
Noëlle Santos, the Bronx native behind the proposed bookstore and wine bar in the South Bronx.
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Noëlle Santos

THE BRONX — Although the pending closure of the Barnes & Noble in Co-Op City at the end of the year has left many Bronxites concerned about the lack of bookstores in their borough, one woman is trying to make sure this literary drought does not last long.

Noëlle Santos, 29, an HR manager, is planning to open an independent bookstore in the South Bronx, after taking home a $7,500 prize for coming in second place at the New York Public Library's New York StartUP! Business Plan Competition and blogging about her progress in launching the business.

"I have a love for literature, and I want to put that message out there that [the Bronx is] not burning anymore. This is my contribution," she said. 

 This photo from Santos' blog that shows how she'd decorate the future bookstore using early Bronx graffiti and hip hop as inspiration.
This photo from Santos' blog that shows how she'd decorate the future bookstore using early Bronx graffiti and hip hop as inspiration.
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1stnoelle.com/ Noëlle Santos

Santos plans on naming the business The Lit Bar, and will offer a simple selection of wines and plenty of comfortable places where people can sit, sip and read. She's designing an area for children she'll call Kiddie Liter.

If Santos succeeds, she'll have the only independent bookstore in The Bronx.

The Barnes & Noble at the Bay Plaza Shopping Center is the only major bookstore in the borough, but Santos recently wrote on her blog that she was not happy about this newfound lack of competition.

"Bay Plaza’s Barnes & Noble was there for our Bronx readers, authors, and children when we needed them," she wrote. "They invested in us as we were—not in the promise of what luxury condos and the likes could bring."

Barnes & Noble Vice President of Development David Deason said in a statement that the company tried to extend its lease but could not reach an agreement with the owner.

The fashion retailer Saks OFF 5TH will replace the bookstore, and it is scheduled to open at the shopping center in summer 2017, marking the store's first location in The Bronx, according to company spokeswoman Meghan Biango.

According to a study from the Center for an Urban Future, Bronx libraries have seen a 225 percent increase in attendance between 2002 and 2014. Other boroughs had an increase of 172 percent and lower. During that time, Bronx libraries had the highest circulation at 35 percent while other boroughs like Queens had a significant dip in circulation.  

Santos said that in order to have access to extra literary events or lounges, people like herself have to leave their neighborhoods. She thinks Lit Bar will keep the money, and the fun in the Bronx.

She's currently working with a development group on finding a space for the store and wine bar, zeroing in on locations in Mott Haven and Longwood. Santos declined to name the developer, saying that they were in the very early stages of working together.

She added that the group has spoken about including Bronx residents in the decisions on upcoming changes. She feels that if they help with her business plan, she will learn if the group is invested in the importance of her work and addressing the needs of various Bronx neighborhoods. 

Justine Manzano, a Bronx-born writer and an operations manager for Fantasy Works LLC, an independent publisher, thinks that her borough is overlooked when it comes to creativity. 

"Reading and writing are such a huge part of what it takes to elevate people as a whole, and the Bronx is largely cut off from access," she said in an email to DNAinfo. 

Manzano also said that writers around her often have limited options for selling their paperbacks or hardbacks and for hosting local events to advertise their work.

Since large stores like Barnes & Noble don't carry many independently published books, a smaller store is essential. 

"Noelle's entire business idea is built on that — she wants to bring other services to the bookstore for this reason," said Manzano. "Bronxites feel a connection through our pride for where we live, and she is one of us. She gets us." 

Latanya Devaughn, the treasurer for the BxArts Factory met Santos at the Bronx Book Fair this year when Devaughn was on a panel.

"I know so many artists who are published and they just sell books right out of their bookcases or trunks," Devaughn said. "They're not really housed anywhere in the Bronx." 

Like Santos, she's concerned about gentrification and is wary of new businesses that may make longtime locals and people of color feel isolated. Santos said that she wants to be sure that a portion of her staff is bilingual. She says she'll keep the different cultures around her in mind for future events. 

Santos wants to see more locals trying to become involved in how their neighborhoods will change. She claims that it's one of the reasons that she decided to create the bookstore and wine bar.  

"People from the outside are taking value in our market. I want to do my part to make sure that Bronxites are represented in all these new developments and businesses," she said. 

Devaughn envisions open mics and networking events that will attract locals. She helps organize a weekly writing group and is excited to have them meeting at a physical bookstore. 

"I would love to bring the group to an actual bookstore where they can write and be amongst among literature. Getting them published at a Bronx bookstore would be so great because we write in the Bronx," Devaughn said.  

Both hope that the Lit Bar will change outside perspective of their homes, and encourage those around them to take control of it's future, before other forces do so first. 

"I want to tell other Bronxites that we don't have to run away from where we're from, we can make this a better place," said Santos.