Filling The Bronx’s Wine and Words Gap

By | August 10, 2017
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Noelle Santos at a book fair promoting Lit Bar
Noelle Santos, founder of Lit Bar

A South Bronx entrepreneur aims to fill two gaping cultural holes later this year, opening a wine bar/bookstore called Lit Bar.

Like other book lovers, Noëlle Santos heard the call to arms two years ago when rumor spread that Barnes & Noble might close its Bronx store. She signed and spread the petitions, listened to the politicians and protesters speak out. She figured the company with hundreds of stores across all 50 states would stay, but that wasn't enough. Santos resolved to compete.

“I just had an instant decision that I was going to open a second bookstore in the Bronx. I saw an opportunity,” Santos said.

With the only competition a 25-minute drive away in Baychester, there was certainly room for a South Bronx-based bookstore. She started planning and promoting, finding early fundraising success in a neighborhood eager for norms the rest of the city enjoys. Then, to Bronx bibliophiles' horror, the only competition shut its doors for good in January. “That gave me a greater sense of urgency to start the Lit Bar,” Santos said. “And here we are.”

Acknowledging she's neither a wine nor bookselling expert, Santos set out to educate herself while remaining firmly rooted in the South Bronx community she'll be serving.

“I wanted to put my own spin on it and make it more me. It's like a ritual for me: At home, on my personal time, I like to have a glass of wine and read a book. That's the way I like to unwind. Those are things that I go to other boroughs to enjoy. My friends and me always leave the Bronx. We always complain about it, but nobody can do anything about it. You know, we always measured our success by how far we could get away from the Bronx. So that was part of it. Also, I know the markup on the liquor will allow me to have different versatile events and be more sustainable. I'll need to be able to react to different market changes. You never know. The worse the economy gets in the future, the better the wine bar will do.”

A pile of books
Photo 1: Photo from IG @thelitbar
Photo 2: Photo from IG @thelitbar

The idea is to make the wine and light food selections highly approachable. She doesn't plan to specialize in wine regions or styles. She plans to offer just 12 wines so as to not overwhelm: a few whites, a few reds, and a couple of desert wines. “It's not going to be intimidating. Again, I'm very conscious of the fact that I'm opening this bookstore/wine bar in the South Bronx,” she said. “You're not going to have three different types of chardonnay. People just want to know: How much does it cost? Does it fizzle? What do I eat it with? It is sweet or is it dry? So, it will be a small selection but we'll have a lot of fun with it.”

Santos hopes to have the Lit Bar open by the end of 2017 in a yet-undisclosed South Bronx location where, by this time next year, she hopes people are flocking for weekly wine bar events: literary events, food and wine events, off-topic events. And unlike most other wine bars, kids will also be welcome.

Neighbors have been supportive and generally excited about the Lit Bar idea, but some are fearful it could be the first hints of a coming gentrification. “You see businesses that are atypical to the neighborhood moving in, and there's a fear that more posh-type businesses are going to spur that change and attract people that could displace the existing population.”

To preempt such a fallout, Santos plans to target literary selections that meet the community's needs, whatever that might be. Right now, that means starting with books on entrepreneurship and women's interests. “With the political environment we have right now, we're facing a wave of gentrification. We have a lot of issues going on, like immigration. These are issues that touch Bronx lives a lot. These issues will continue to change and I want to make sure that the inventory continues to change and reflect what's going on in the Bronx. Right now it happens to be non-fiction, women's rights and issues.

She also plans to sell new and gently used books paired with a buy-back program that will keep the right books on the shelves, prices down, and people coming in.

“I want people to be able to have books at an affordable price. I'm very conscious of the facts that I'm opening in the South Bronx. Also, having newer titles, and more relevant titles than you could normally afford or have in a library,” she said.

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