Books / By Peter McDermott
If there were to be a designated literary crossroads of America, then the junction at Fulton Street and South Portland Avenue in Brooklyn would be a leading contender. Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting opened Greenlight Bookstore there in the heart of a borough known both for its literary roots and also for its living authors.
Several reside in historic Fort Greene, which nowadays is a vibrant, racially integrated neighborhood. Among them is the Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri and Jennifer Egan, whose critically acclaimed "A Visit of from the Goon Squad" was launched at Greenlight last summer.
Now it's the turn of Dubliner Kevin Holohan, a neighborhood customer, whose debut novel "The Brothers' Lot" will be launched at the store on Thursday evening of next week.
"Greenlight is a welcoming, vital and vibrant part of Fort Greene," Holohan said. "Its thoughtful and eclectic book selections make it possible to still stumble across something fascinating and unexpected."
Browsing is one of the joys of the bookstore that the online experience can't replicate and just one reason why Greenlight's founders are optimistic about the future of the independents in the era of Barnes & Noble and Amazon.
There are, of course, skeptics, including one writer, a fan, in the Village Voice who said the "idea of opening a bookstore is akin to opening a typewriter shop at the beginning of the dot-com era."
The difference is that the people of Fort Greene didn't ask for a typewriter shop, but they did say in surveys that they needed a bookstore.
Bagnulo, who lives in the neighborhood with her husband Michael, rose to the challenge. She and Fitting announced their business plan in the fall of 2008. Then the crash hit, putting paid to their chances of getting a bank loan. So they reached out to people in the community. They raised $70,000 in small loans and added that to their personal savings, a grant from the Brooklyn library system and a $346,000 loan from the World Trade Center Small Business Recovery Fund.
"For every $100 you spend at an independently owned business, $68 will stay in the community," says the Greenlight Bookstore website. "Did you know that when you spend the same amount at a national chain, only $43 stays in the community?"
Bagnulo isn't looking for just any sort of loyalty. "We don't want people to come because they feel that they should," she said. "We want to give them a very good experience."
The California native combined the best practices of the previous bookstores she'd worked in. "The same with Rebecca," she said of her partner who had a career as a sales representative with Random House.
"We wanted to create a beautiful space where people could feel a sense of community and connection," she said.
That space is 2,000 square feet, a manageable "human scale," said Bagnulo, not a warehouse-like outlet favored by the chains, but not too small either.
"The old model of clutter had its charm," she said, "But in a new store everything has to be accessible and in the right place.
"We were committed to the idea that you have to run a bookstore as a business. It's not a hobby," she added.
They employ staff members who regard themselves as professional booksellers, people who love reading and talking about books, not the equivalent of "the snarky record store clerk."
The independents know they can't compete with Barnes & Noble or Amazon's special offers, but they can offer other things, such as frequent events. Greenlight Books has several each week, which help customers, the co-owner believes, "rediscover the value of community."
With the Borders chain going into bankruptcy, Bagnulo has been asked a lot in recent weeks about bookstore viability. She believes, though, news of the independents' demise has been exaggerated by media. Indeed, of her favorite bookstores in her 17 years in New York, only one, Coliseum Books, has closed, and it had a particular challenge establishing itself at its last Midtown location.
Bagnulo argued that rather than being their undoing new technologies help the independents. "We're working 24 hours a day," Bagnulo said, referring to the website (the doors at 686 Fulton St. are open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily).
And despite the radical shift towards digital, certain things won't change. "A book is a beautiful gift for kids. Parents want to give this beautiful object. Images on the screen just aren't the same," Bagnulo said.
Children, for their part, seem to love being in the children's section of a well-organized bookstore. And places like Greenlight have a calming and generally positive effect on adults, too. That's their biggest advantage.
"People feel they want to be part of the store," Bagnulo said. "That it's their store."
The launch of Kevin Holohan's "The Brothers' Lot" takes place on March 10, at 7:30 p.m. at Greenlight Bookstore, 686 Fulton St., Brooklyn. For more information go to www.greenlightbookstore.com. [PHOTO BY PETER MCDERMOTT]