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A Bookstore Booms in Brooklyn

Opened two years ago, Greenlight Bookstore is already expanding, and has formed a new partnership with BAM. Take that, Amazon.

The week that Borders Books announced it was closing all its stores throughout the nation, an independent bookseller stood before a crowd at in Fort Greene and said he was glad.

“I’ve been fighting Borders since 1993,” said Andrew Laties, an author and owner of several bookstores over the years. “They put thousands of independent bookstores out of business.”

Judging from this event—a panel discussion last month by Brooklyn’s independent booksellers, some of them brand new—times have changed.

Laties' non-fiction book, Rebel Bookseller, first published six years ago, is something of a call to arms. In the just-published second edition, he focuses his new preface on the two proprietors of Greenlight Bookstore, which opened just two years ago. His words are among the many that have been written about Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo—though they come nowhere near matching the millions of words contained in approximately 9,200 books for adults and 3,600 for children that surround them at their store at 686 Fulton St.

At a time when huge bookstore chains are shuttering, when independently run stores of all stripes are struggling, and when even long-lasting brick-and-mortar establishments feel threatened by online shopping, Greenlight is expanding.

The bookstore is taking over the storefront next door (until recently occupied by the Marquette Café), which will provide space for a real office (rather than the broom closet they currently use) and for a “coffee bar with prepared foods” to be run by The Greene Grape, a gourmet grocery and liquor store across the street.

This week, Greenlight also announced . Greenlight will be taking over the book kiosks at BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp Building and the Harvey Theater. The bookstore will also sell BAM merchandise through the Greenlight website.

“A customer asked, ‘How do you survive in the face of this Amazon/Kindle thing?’” Bagnulo said. “And she was saying this while buying a whole stack of books.”

Monthly sales at Greenlight have exceeded monthly expenses for quite some time now, which may be why the two owners have happily shared their finances for public consumption.

“I often think of our story—the Greenlight story—as a bookstore fairytale,” Fitting said.

So why is the Greenlight story turning out enchanted rather than grim?

It helps to have wanted to run a bookstore for a long time. Bagnulo remembers the first independent bookstore she ever entered near where she grew up in California when she was six years old. The store, called the White Rabbit, specialized in children's books.

She didn’t then and there decide she wanted to be a bookseller. “It took me a while to realize this was my calling.” Attending college at NYU, she needed a part-time job, and happened to find one at Three Lives & Company in the West Village. “It was like family,” she said. “It involved reading but not goal-oriented reading. It was in a beautiful space. People came in every day to discuss books and we’d get to know about each other’s lives; it could be the setting for a really smart sitcom. I was totally happy.”

Stints at Labyrinth Books (which became Book Culture) and McNally Jackson followed. She treated these Manhattan bookstores not just as jobs but also as training grounds. In the very first entry of what became her popular blog, The Written Nerd, in October 2005, Bagnulo made clear her ambition: “To speculate and plan endlessly for my own bookstore, a goal that I'm working toward with embarrassing giddiness.”

Fitting grew up in a family whose members were one way or another in the business of books—author, illustrator, and literary agent. She worked at her local library at 15 and at 18 launched a five-year stint at Borders; eventually her job was to set up new stores and train the staff. 

“When I started there, they only had around 35-40 stores and it still felt like a bookstore. By the time I left, they had over 250 stores and it felt like 'retail.'” (Still, she is sad that Borders is closing, that so many of her former colleagues are losing their jobs). Fitting became the manager of an independent bookstore in Memphis, and then worked as a sales rep at Random House, which is how she met Bagnulo.

“We are fortunate to have the right combination of a vibrant neighborhood, a great location, and complimentary skillsets,” Fitting said, “where we can partner together to create a healthy bookstore.”

There are other independent bookstores, she was quick to add, that are also prospering, especially in Brooklyn, citing Boulevard Books and Cafe in Dyker Heights, WORD in Greenpoint and BookCourt in Cobble Hill.

There are also Unnamable Books in Prospect Heights, and an entire community of book publishers and booksellers in DUMBO.

As part of a wave of bookstores doubling as community centers, Greenlight offers as many as four events a week and plenty of partnerships with local businesses and schools.

This may be why only a few people seem to grumble that Greenlight charges list price for almost all its books. The only discounts are for “staff picks,” some 30 books selected by the 11 staff members.

This, the Greenlight proprietors say, is how they must run their business to keep it afloat, and if they cannot offer the bargains of the book chains and online emporiums, there is much they can do that those larger businesses cannot. 

But how sustainable in the long run is the independently owned bookstore at a time when people are wondering, given Kindle and Nook, iPads and E-books, whether the book itself will survive?

“For a while I was really interested in the future of books,” Bagnulo said. “Now I’m interested in the present of books.” 

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