December 16, 2011

INTERVIEW: Veronica Liu on making a pop-up bookstore in New York City


Word Up, the pop-up volunteer-run bookstore in Washington Heights, might be a more permanent fixture in the neighborhood if the shop’s creators are able to negotiate a new agreement with the landlord. Veronica Liu, an editor at Seven Stories Press, told DNA info that “This bookstore has been a vibrant hub for local arts and for generating new community dialogue in languages such as English, Spanish, and even Russian.” Because we at Melville House like to support small bookstores near and far, I decided to interview Ms. Liu and ask her what’s been happening at one of our favorite places. If you haven’t been to Word Up yet, their Rent Party is on Saturday, December 17 from 6-9pm, and the cost is $10.

MOBY: How did Word Up start?

Veronica Liu: Word Up most concretely came out of a conversation I had in February 2011 with Sandra Garcia Betancourt and Diana Caba, both of the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, while we were all attending a reading at the Sunday Best Reading Series—one of the very few (at the time) regular lit/book events in Washington Heights. The readers that day were the literary grantees for a regrant program that NoMAA does. I had been a grantee the year before to complete a novel, and while one of the requirements had been the suggestion to do a reading in the neighbourhood, it wasn’t a requirement—which was good because at the time I really had no clue of any ready uptown venues where I could read. Also, some of the writers at this February reading had books available, but besides that day, where else could their neighbours access the books?

Sandra, Diana, and I initially talked about doing a one-day uptown literary arts fair (I have organized five of these fairs, but in a neighbourhood a little bit south of the Heights), but during the course of the chat, a fair began to sound too short. There were a lot of writers and a few presses I had heard of that were above 155 Street (and of course there would be the need to contact certain Spanish- and Russian-language presses and authors too), and the rare opportunity to connect them all seemed to call for more than a day-long event. Then Sandra contacted Raquel Batista from Vantage about using an empty storefront, as NoMAA had done for one of their earlier programs, and that is how we got the space. The shop was originally going to be only open for a week, but then we had to change locations. The newer (and present) location was much bigger, so we decided before opening that we would put up the shop for the whole month. Between picking up the keys and our grand opening, we had just under 4 days to move in (and our dayjobs during the day)!

The idea of a bookshop/infoshop/venue of sorts had been brewing for a while. Mostly just from walking around the neighbourhood and seeing such concentrations of people (181 Street is as busy as Canal Street on a Friday afternoon), and from thinking that it would be nice to pop into a bookshop and loiter around some books. And noting that, though I could easily hop on a train and travel to any of the bookstores I enjoy frequenting, a lack of them in our intensely populated neighbourhood meant that there were a ton of kids who weren’t growing up with the experience of having such a space close by. (According to the Community Board 12 website, our area has the highest concentration of children and youth of any district in Manhattan.)

MOBY: How has the transition from a pop-up store to a more permanent fixture been received? 

VL: It’s funny that this question assumes the opposite path from what, in my mind, happened. I thought I would do this thing for a week, tops a month. I hoped that it would inspire someone better prepared than me to open up a bookshop in my neighbourhood immediately, and that I would go back to the rest of my life in the meantime, with the possibility of opening a bookshop/music venue/WHFR storefront studio “for real” much later. (Currently WHFR—Washington Heights Free Radio—operates out of my apartment.) But right from opening night, groups of people who came by began to discuss how to keep the place in the neighbourhood forever. People used the word “forever”! Some of these people were our earliest volunteers and helped set up the initial operating procedures for the store, some were performers on opening night, some were writers or publishers in the neighbourhood that were now happy they had a spot to sell their book not so far from where they lived—while were people who happened upon the event that same night! People who had lived around the corner for 30, 40, 50 years without a bookshop nearby (no one is counting the Columbia Med School textbook store). So instead of going back to the rest of my life, I have instead gone down in hours at work (though still at Seven Stories), deferred a grad school program, and now the whole sprawling collective of folks at Word Up and I are working out with the landlord—in association with NoMAA—a longer-term agreement so that we can stay for many more months without the stress of this month-to-month thing.

The question of becoming a neighbourhood fixture is an interesting one in such an intensely populated neighbourhood that is characterized by both so much change and so much stability: gentrification is one of the big issues of our neighbourhood, while we’re at the same time one of the (relatively) least gentrified spots in all of Manhattan. We aren’t on the yellow-cab map. There is also a big movement that’s gone on here over the past few years, of uptowners trying to show other uptowners that, right where we are, that’s where it’s at, we don’t need to always head downtown or to Brooklyn to check out our peers’ work, etc. But that is all tied to having spaces to do things. There aren’t as many such spaces uptown in proportion to the number of people who live up here. Looking at 2000 census numbers (because I’m an idiot and can’t find how to look up quickly the 2010 census numbers and these answers to your questions are already so late), there are almost 300,000 people above 145 Street and only 2 functioning NYPL branches. Compare that to half the number of people and 6 branches below Houston Street. The biggest decision a pop-up shop can make would be to transition to being a more permanent space. But with such a need for spaces, it soon felt like it would be a disservice to the neighbourhood if we didn’t try to make that transition.

MOBY: What does it mean to be a community bookstore? 

VL: Generally, to my mind, it means providing a local venue for community engagement and info-sharing, where one can also read and purchase books. You know, I think often to Dennis’s post in the summer about real estate and Borders. Real estate is the key to so much for us. We’ve been able to futz around outside a traditional business model for running a bookstore because we had the benefit of donated space for the first 5.5 months. We’re on Broadway just south of the GW Bridge—but what if we’d been one block over on Fort Washington Avenue? We’ve been able to create this community space under somewhat favourable conditions, though at the same time I think we were allowed these favourable conditions because this was something so many people just plain wanted.

MOBY: What is a book that you can’t stop recommending to people?

VL: Depends on what they are looking for—fiction, nonfiction, a gift, something with photos, “something fun,” more environmental books . . . A lot of people come in already looking for Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, or, even more often, the Spanish-language edition, La otra historia de los Estados Unidos. Which means I don’t even have to recommend it to people. I obviously recommend Rebel Bookseller all the time, and one of these days I hope more people will take me up on it. I often get fixated on books related to whatever event we have just had, or are about to have. For instance, though I already knew and loved Felipe Galindo’s hilarious illustrations (he was one of the first neighbours I asked to bring stock for the store), leading up to his Day of the Dead event, I think I exclaimed Manhatitlan! maybe 70 times in a week trying to get people into it.

MOBY: Last question: Would you describe yourself as rabidly Canadian?

VL: Once upon a time, yes. I did a college radio show called Far Too Canadian, which sort of started as a gimmick but then ended up tricking me into thinking that I really was that into Canada. But I didn’t think about Canada until I moved away from it. I don’t think about it as much now as I used to, though I do still have this email address ([email protected]…) that makes people think I am farting in their inbox.