I planned to make the trip to the recently opened Lit Bar for months.
I followed Noëlle Santos’ years-long journey to pry open the doors of the only independent bookstore in the Bronx through social media and newsletter, cheering along as progress was made one step at a time. Finally, the Lit Bar opened on April 27th 2019, Independent Bookstore Day, at 131 Alexander Avenue in the South Bronx.
Three months after opening its doors, I still hadn’t set foot in the Lit Bar, but it did not miss my absence — it has been praised, news reported and gone viral on social media, even earning a NYC fact on the LinkNYC monitor’s lining city sidewalks. As a working adult in New York City, there is not enough hours in the day, but I was excited when I had a reason to put visiting the Lit Bar at the top of my priority list. The weekend prior, my QTPOC (Queer/Trans People of Color) book club had settled on All About Love by bell hooks as our next book.
So, on Tuesday, August 8th, as news of Toni Morrison’s death flooded my Twitter feed with quotes from Beloved and snippets of her well-spoken interviews, I was on my way to the Lit Bar. As I hopped on the 6 train, I knew there was no better time to support a black woman-owned bookstore.
When I got there, the Lit Bar was quiet except for a family of four sitting on a couch, the two children being read to by one of their parents while the other sipped on a glass of wine. Two women of color managed the store, walking around and tidying up book displays.
I started judging the bookstore how I judge all bookstores — by how they categorize, section off and display their selections.
I was pleased.
Their LGBTQ+ section was upfront and not tucked away in the depths of the bookstore or nonexistent entirely. They had two book displays marked as “Dear White People” which held books like White Fragility by Robin Diangelo and the Bluest Eye, by the recently passed and loved Toni Morrison. There was an “Smut” section lined with books my sister devoured in her youth and of course, a “Classic” sections but not without the tongue-in-cheek subtitle that stated “(not up for debate).”
A handful of the bookshelves were empty or sparse with signs asking the patron to pardon their appearances as the bookstore works on restocking these sections. In a city where the few independent stores that are still standing are overwhelmingly packed to the brim, this was surprising to me. But only for a second, before I imagined how as the sole source of literature in the Bronx and newly opened at that — and let’s be honest, probably not nearly as well funded at McNally Jackson — the Lit Bar must grind to keep their shelves stocked. And the shelves that were stocked, they were well-chosen books — books I’ve read and loved, critically acclaimed books I’ve been meaning to read or books I’ve never seen before but was immediately drawn too.
As I was browsing, the street food lady poked her head into the bookstore and called out her offerings. Not abnormal for a Bronx business to see, whether it be churros, icees or sliced mangos, the women who worked the streets in our community always had something to offer patrons and passerbys. But, it was the first I’ve ever seen it happen at a bookstore and it was one of those Bronx moments that make you smile.
But, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hold my breath — waiting to see how this newly built, boutique-esque bookstore would handle the moment.
The women working at the bookstore, didn’t shoo her away or ignore her like you can imagine would happen if we were downtown or in Williamsburg. One of the bookstore employees didn’t have money and the other went and spoke to the lady in Spanish about her co-worker’s interest but lack of money. And as expected, the street food lady reassures her that it was alright and that she could pay her back next time.
I was relieved. It was such a Bronx moment. The sense of ‘I got you’ runs in the blood of the Bronx community and to see it alive and well in a literary space, a space that has been denied continuously to our community, was an affirmation. An affirmation that while the South Bronx is gentrification’s most recent target, that our energy and support for one another can be, will be and is stronger than the forces trying to displace and disregard our community. That Bronx energy lives on through businesses that are for us and by us. And it is in those businesses that we must pour our love, support, energy into.
Yes, it is disappointing that the Lit Bar is the only independent general store in the Bronx. But, something is better than nothing. The Lit Bar is more than just something. It is a retreat for families of color, somewhere a mom can sip a glass of wine, while her children flip through their favorite books. It is a place where the street food lady can pop her head into and call out her offerings. The Lit Bar, is a little prayer, a breeze in blistering heat, the train pulling up just as you get on to the platform.
When I think of what the Lit Bar means for our community, I think of Toni Morrison. That Monday night, she died in the Bronx at Montefiore Medical Center. I wonder if she had heard about the Lit Bar and what she would think of it. I imagine it would be something along the lines of her famous quote, “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.”
I see the Lit Bar as a manifestation of that sentiment and hopefully it will not be the last. In the spaces where our community has been emptied out by lack of resources or funding or care, it is our own hands that have built spaces like the Lit Bar from the ashes because where there is a hunger in our community, it is up to us to satisfy it.
Visit the Lit Bar at 131 Alexander Avenue, Bronx NY, 10454