Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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News & Features » February 2013 » A Conversation with Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, co-owners of Greenlight Bookstore

A Conversation with Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, co-owners of Greenlight Bookstore

Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a weekly column featuring managing editor Johanna Ingalls’s interviews and profiles with many of the remarkable people in the publishing industry today. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, co-owners of Greenlight Bookstore.

GreenlightIn the late nineties, when Akashic was in its infancy, both Akashic publisher Johnny Temple and I worked full-time in the music industry: I worked at a management company whose roster of bands included Beastie Boys, Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, and Girls Against Boys, the band Johnny plays bass in.

It was during this time that I began helping Johnny out with Akashic—Xeroxing press kits, following up on review copies, shipping stock to stores and wholesalers (this was before Consortium began distributing our books), and, one of my least favorite tasks, following up on open invoices with bookstores. Before heading off on tour, Johnny would breeze into the midtown Manhattan office with his bleach blond hair and a carton of ten books to send to Ingram or Baker & Taylor. The shipping part was easy. Getting paid was much harder.

Until this point, I’d never thought much about bookstores other than I typically couldn’t walk out of one without buying a book. I quickly learned that, like any type of business, there were great, well-run bookstores, and then there were dysfunctional messes with grumpy staff who bummed me out more than they should.

I tell this story because after fifteen years in this business, I unapologetically have favorite bookstores & sellers as well as ones that drive me nuts in their dysfunction and, at times, their outright rudeness. The latter will remain nameless, but the former will be exemplified by the phenomenal Greenlight Bookstore in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn—coincidentally (or maybe not) a block from two of Akashic’s former office locations.

To both celebrate Greenlight and also to maybe get to the bottom of what makes a bookstore work, I had the pleasure of doing email interviews with co-owners Rebecca Fitting and Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, who opened Greenlight in 2009.

Rebecca was born and raised in upstate New York and spent many years working in the book industry before opening Greenlight. Her previous jobs include: field rep at Random House; regional buyer and product manager for a music retailer; manager of an independent bookstore in Memphis, TN; bookseller and manager at Borders (3 different locations).

Jessica, on the other hand, started out on the West Coast, born in Santa Maria and raised in Bakersfield, CA. College brought her East to attend New York University. She too had years of prior experience working with books: she was a bookseller at Three Lives in the West Village; editorial assistant at an educational publishing company; bookseller at Three Lives again (“obviously I was unhappy in cubicle land”); manager at Labyrinth Books on the Upper West Side (now Book Culture); events coordinator at McNally Robinson (now McNally Jackson) in SoHo.

Maybe the first step to a successful bookstore is EXPERIENCE! Makes sense, but there’s more to the success of Greenlight, in my opinion. I mention to each of them that bookstores, both independents and chains, seem to be closing at an alarming rate. Every day I open my email and there is news of another bookstore closing. So, what are a few things they’ve done to keep their store not only open, but truly strong?

Rebecca: “Just a side note to say that it doesn’t feel quite so bleak as that! Bookstores close, but also new bookstores open. Cycle of life, etc. The loss feels greater than the gain over the past few years because Borders left such a big gap but overall it seems the independent marketplace has gained market share. As for Greenlight in particular, we are fortunate that we are located in a vibrant, cultured, and literary neighborhood, and in a city that reads. By keeping our events program diverse and exciting, and by keeping our shelves flush and abundant we have been able to hold onto people’s attention.”

Jessica: “As Rebecca points out, the news of our demise has been greatly exaggerated—it’s a constant frustration that the closing of bookstores seems to get a lot more press than the openings of bookstores, though it speaks to the emotional connection people have with long-established stores. Every article seems to include the phrase ‘the death of book(store)s,’ even when they’re reporting some of the happier trends in our business, so of course book lovers feel like that’s the primary trend, when it isn’t necessarily. Yes, Borders went under, and yes, beloved indie bookstores do close, but there are very specific reasons for each of those closings and they don’t have to do with bookstores not being a viable business.

“Okay, rant over! In terms of Greenlight, I think one of the things we’ve done that keeps us vibrant is just continuing to let people know that we’re here—our communication of the story of our existence really resonates with people, and we keep doing things to keep us on their minds. We started blogging about the store long before we opened, and all of the events we hold and new stuff we do is largely for the purpose of continuing to have a story to tell. There are dozens of bookstores in New York that do the great stuff that Greenlight does, but not everyone is aware of them—one of the secrets to our success is we just don’t shut up. That said, we are also really lucky in being in a neighborhood that is itself vibrant—Fort Greene is absolutely full of readers, from toddlers to grandparents and everything in between, and we have a built-in community that we strive to serve.”

Jessica’s response leads directly into my next question: Since Greenlight is located in one of my favorite neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and since I know they are very engaged and involved in local businesses, I ask them to talk a bit about the importance of the neighborhood to their success.

Rebecca: “Our community and partnering with neighborhood organizations and businesses is a big part of what we do (both actually and philosophically!) but I feel like Jessica could speak better towards this question because she drives that bus more than I do, but yes. Partnering with our neighbors has definitely helped contribute toward our store’s success. It has generated a lot of goodwill toward our bookstore, but also toward books in general, and it has really helped to solidify our place within our community.”

Jessica: “See above! We feel deeply that our location in Fort Greene is the primary reason we’ve been successful so far. In addition to connecting with our neighbors each time they come into the store, we continue to work on building partnerships with other neighborhood institutions. We’re thrilled to be the official vendor of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)—selling performance-related books at our kiosks in their theater lobbies has expanded into collaborating on literary programming, which is wonderful. We also work with St. Joseph’s College on a literary series called Brooklyn Voices—they have a beautiful campus and a great new writing program and it’s great to have a big auditorium to host authors like Junot Díaz and Mark Danielewski. And we’ve worked a lot with the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) on joint programming related to black culture, history, and literature, with events in their space and ours. Greene Grape (wine shop, grocery store, etc.) is our frequent partner on food-related events and promotions, and we’re lucky to have their coffee shop next door to Greenlight—the perfect complement. What else?

“Well, last summer we did a ‘Where’s Waldo’ scavenger hunt, and managed to coordinate with twenty other local businesses to hide a little red-and-white striped guy in their stores! I don’t know that you could do that in every neighborhood in New York, but it works in Fort Greene.”

In closing, I ask Jessica to name a forthcoming, non-Akashic event or two she’s particularly excited about (of course she’s excited about ALL of ours!) and I ask Rebecca about a couple of upcoming (again, non-Akashic) books she’s looking forward to.

Rebecca: “I’m really looking forward to Philipp Meyer’s The Son (coming from Ecco this spring). I loved his debut American Rust and think he could have the potential to become a writer with a strong career. And my favorite nonfiction book from last year just came out in paperback: Quiet by Susan Cain.”

Jessica: “I love our food events, and on March 4 we have a jam canning demo. On March 25 we’re celebrating the 10th anniversary of The Believer with some of the magazine’s editors and contributors, and on March 21, hometown boy Jonathan Lethem is returning for a talk with LIU professor/author Jessica Hagedorn. And speaking of hometown returnees…we JUST confirmed that Jhumpa Lahiri will be returning to Fort Greene from her digs in Rome to launch her new novel The Lowland in October! You have the scoop on that story—more details to come.”

I thank them both for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully to my questions. I should mention that both women have had children within the last year and they still manage to run this kick-ass bookstore! For any of you who have not been to Greenlight, I encourage you to check out one of the most vibrant bookstores in the US today!

Posted: Feb 21, 2013

Category: Akashic in Good Company | Tags: , , , ,