December 12, 2009

A wry smile twists across my lips whenever I think of the death of independent bookstores in New York City. If it weren’t for Housing Works, I might find myself going a little batty, so the opening of Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene warms my heart. I am pleased that co-owner Jessica Stockton Bagnulo found the time to do an interview, as I know how crazy retail is at this time of year!

Tell me about the inspiration to create Greenlight. What were some of the highlights along your journey to launch the store this Fall ?

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo: It has really been a journey!  My partner Rebecca and I have both worked in bookstores for many years, and each of us had separately dreamed of opening our own store someday.  In late 2007 I wrote a business plan, and ended up winning the grand prize in a contest sponsored by the Brooklyn Business Library in January 2008; that got a lot of great publicity for the project, but I still needed some capital, a space, and a kick start.

Rebecca and I partnered up over the summer that year, right around the time we also got connected with the Fort Greene Association; the FGA threw us an amazing “launch party” in September 2008 to get the neighborhood behind our efforts (here’s the story in the New York Times:  We were able to pull together the startup capital with a combination of our own finances, a small business loan, and “Community Lenders” who loaned us $1000 or more.

Then this wonderful space on the corner of Fulton and South Portland came to our attention through one of the FGA members; we signed a lease in June and spent the summer doing the buildout (it used to be an insurance company!) and ordering books.  We opened our doors for the first time on October 17, and the neighborhood has been warmly welcoming every day since!

You have opened the store in Fort Greene, Brooklyn—the borough that just happens to be the literary capital of the world. What is it like to be at the center of such an exciting place and time in cultural history ?

I’m so glad you feel that way too! I love Brooklyn with a passion second only to my love of books — I’ve lived here for about eight years, and it feels more like home than the town I grew up in.  I feel incredibly lucky to be able to be a part of the vibrant, diverse literary culture of the borough—big-name bestselling literary authors rubbing shoulders with self-published underground authors and bloggers and critics and publishers and children’s book writers, along with all of the artists and musicians and everything else that’s going on here.

And Fort Greene seems like the microcosm of that in some ways.  It’s such a diverse neighborhood in many ways — different ethnicities, lifestyles, worldviews, goals, styles—and that makes for an exciting and creative atmosphere.  It’s got a great literary and artistic history, from Walt Whitman to Richard Wright to Spike Lee and many many more, but it’s not stuck in the past.  It’s a place where people are aware of the value of their community, and that community is incomparable.  It is so the right fit for a new independent bookstore like ours, which is a very traditional venture that is using all the most contemporary tools to stay vibrant and connected.

I love all people who prove Print is Not Dead. What is it like to spend all of your time with books and the people who love and create them ?

It’s invigorating!  I hang out with a lot of people who talk about The Future of Books (or Publishing) a lot, but in the meantime we’re all living The Present of Books, and it’s a great place to be.  In addition to the local community of Fort Greene, I feel like we’re part of another community of booksellers and publishers and authors all over the country who share ideas about the business and the books.  If their smarts and passion are any indication, there’s a lot of life in books yet!

I always find myself buying books—in between business meetings, when I am traveling, or just because it’s Tuesday. To be able to be able to stock the store in an experience I envy greatly. What excites you most when looking at new titles ?

I have my own favorite genres: literary fantasy and the “New Weird”, quirky comic books, meaty plot-driven literature or contemporary poetry, so seeing those books in the catalog always excites me.  But it’s just as exciting and rewarding to look at a book and think, “That is just right for our customers,” or, “Someone is going to discover that and fall in love.”

When we come across a book like that, Rebecca and I tend to order big stacks—iit happened with POSING BEAUTY, a photography book on the history of images of African American beauty, and WHO SHOT ROCK AND ROLL, the book connected to the current exhibition at BAM.  That kind of stuff is exciting too.  (And we do love getting comp copies of not-yet-published books from publishers—one of the most exclusive perks of being a bookseller!)

What was your favorite book of 2009—new release or out of print, I mean to ask, what was your favorite encounter in print this year ?

Wow, good/tough question!  Though I might have a different answer on a different day, today I have to say a debut novel by a British writer, one that has a cult following amongst my fellow booksellers: THE GONE-AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway.  It’s a post-apocalyptic story with ninjas, pirates, monsters, mistaken identity, and true love — but it’s also a deeply humanistic, witty, funny, sad, old-fashioned yarn, and highly recommended even if you’re not a “genre” reader at all.  It’s really a rich, transformative literary experience—you look at the real world differently after spending time in Harkaway’s world.  The hardcover came out with a fuzzy neon pink-and-green jacket, which I think made it hard to sell; the paperback is out now in bright orange and silver.  If you see it, snap it up—it’s a serious trip!

(On another day, I’d mention: Zadie Smith’s essay collection CHANGING MY MIND, Jonathan Lethem’s CHRONIC CITY, reading P.G. Wodehouse on my iPhone, L.J. Davis reading from A MEANINGFUL LIFE which he wrote 40 years ago in this neighborhood, or any number of others!!)

Greenlight Bookstore
686 Fulton Street
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Hours: 10 AM – 10 PM Monday through Saturday, 12 noon – 8 PM Sunday, or by phone at (718) 246-0200

Greenlight Bookstore is located on the corner of South Portland in the heart of Fort Greene, Brooklyn. The co-proprietors, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo (Book Nerd) and Rebecca Fitting, have a combined 25 years of experience in the book industry, an award-winning business plan, a great retail space, and a shared vision of bringing a fantastic independent bookstore to the neighborhood.

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