After coming across a petition in 2014 to save Barnes & Noble — the lone surviving bookstore in the Bronx — Noëlle Santos knew she had to do something. That Barnes & Noble location shut down in 2016. Three years later, with a ceremony this past Saturday — National Independent Bookstore Day — Santos opened the The Lit. Bar.
With The Lit. Bar, Santos tries to have something for everyone who comes in. Operating as both bookstore and wine bar, the store draws a highly diverse group of customers.
“I would love for this place to be known for spoken word and poetry slams,” Santos said in an interview with WSN. “It’s a community space, and that is something the wine bar gives. We can do non-traditional bookstore events. We have young voices running the place. We did a vision board party in January. Whatever it is, we can tie a book to it.”
Leaning on her community for insight, Santos’ journey to opening The Lit. Bar has been long and carefully plotted. Before opening the store, she attended courses to learn how to run a bookstore and volunteered at local bookstores to ensure that The Lit. Bar is a fair representation of Bronx voices.
“I had a lot of time — this business took me four and a half years to put together,” Santos said with a laugh. “I had a lot of time to think through every detail. I was just thinking about what I would want as a shopper. I asked my book club, I asked the community, I didn’t do it all by myself. I reached out to parents, I talked to teachers, educators, other bookstores.”
Santos wants The Lit. Bar to be accessible to everyone, including young people. The space is designed with millennials in mind, incorporating hashtags and Instagram references into the decor. With her goal to create more intellectual visibility in the Bronx and to inspire young entrepreneurs, Santos has employed the work of local artists like Andre Trenier to make the bookstore a place of cultural appreciation.
“When I was doing the design of the space, I was like, ‘OK, every wall in here has to be something where an unlikely reader would come in just to take pictures,’” Santos said. “Once I get them in here, […] we will get them into the books. I’m not here to judge the culture, I’m just going to incorporate it and make what we’re doing fun.”
While the The Lit. Bar is a general-interest bookstore, Santos has made sure to keep the selection empowering. With shelves dedicated to literature from the Bronx and books about the black experience, Santos wants to change the narratives that the mainstream media continues to propagate about the borough and the people who live there.
“Yesterday during the grand opening celebration, this little girl, she bought a copy of ‘Merci Suarez Changes Gears,’” Santos said. “Her dad asked her why she picked the book, and she goes, ‘Because the girl on the cover looks just like me.’ I was almost in tears. I mean that’s the point, we want to highlight black and brown boys and girls in a positive light.”
More than anything, however, Santos strives to make The Lit. Bar a communal space. Believing books to be at the forefront of change and empowerment, Santos sums up The Lit. Bar’s mission with the words she had painted by the entrance: “Reach The World But Touch the Hood First.”
“This neighborhood is gentrifying, and we’re going to start seeing more and more businesses that look more upscale coming into this neighborhood,” Santos said. “I don’t want anybody from the existing population to walk by this place and question for a second that this place isn’t for us.”
Email Aashna Agarwal at [email protected]