Not every book launch begins with a “Yerrrrrr!” But then again, not every book launch is held in the Bronx. For young-adult novelist Lilliam Rivera, though, no other place made sense.
On a rainy Friday night in March, dozens of people — most of them young, black, and Latinx— pack into the Lit Bar, the Bronx’s only general-interest bookstore, to hear Rivera and fellow YA novelist Jason Reynolds talk about her new book, Dealing in Dreams. They sit in two plush, red velvet chairs in the back of the room; Rivera, a former fashion and entertainment journalist, wears a shimmering gold dress with bell sleeves, her long, wavy dark hair parted down the middle, orange-red lips lighting up her face.
For Rivera, a Bronx native, returning to the place that continues to inspire her work was closing a circle. But for many in the room, this event was the first of its kind: For the last four years, Bronx residents didn’t have a single community bookstore they could go to in their borough. And no one could recall a bookstore like this — one built and curated with them in mind.
Crystal McIntyre, a teacher at the Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx, brought some of her students to the launch. Before the event, McIntyre, rocking a full Afro and a “Black Teachers Matter” shirt, giggled with her students and fellow teachers over the books they’d found to purchase. During the Q&A, she watched as her students asked the two authors in front of them questions about their writing process: Did they always know they wanted to be writers? Were they nervous about sharing their work?
For a long time, taking her students to a book launch in the Bronx seemed like its own speculative fiction. For McIntyre, it was important for the girls — all of them black and Latinx — to know that this space was made for them.
“When I was in school, I did not feel like having something like this was even possible,” says McIntyre, who’s from Queens. “And even if it did exist, I didn't think it was for me. I didn't view myself as a reader. I didn't view myself as many things because I wasn't taught that by my teachers.”
People from the Bronx know their borough — the birthplace of hip-hop — has already remade the world in its image. And in the last two years, the Bronx’s native sons and daughters have been some of America’s most prominent paradigm shifters: There’s rapper Cardi B and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest congresswoman ever to serve. If you’ve never set foot in the city but recognize a “Yerrr!” when you hear it, chances are podcasters and newly anointed Showtime stars Desus and Mero are responsible for that.
The Lit Bar and Dealing in Dreams are a continuation of that lineage. With her novel, Rivera is positioning young Latinx characters in a role that has typically not been theirs in popular culture: the heroes and heroines of sci-fi fantasies. As for the bookstore, its founder and designer, Noelle Santos, has created a space that not very long ago would have been considered its own kind of fantasy: a place where proud Bronx residents can look at the shelves and see affirmations of themselves and the lives they lead. A place where women of color don’t have to leave to thrive or discover new parts of themselves.
When people think of “making it” in New York, they’ve traditionally thought of Manhattan — the city’s skyscraper-packed centerpiece. That was the case for both Santos and Rivera.
“I used to measure my success by how far I could get away from the Bronx,” Santos told me two years ago, when she was still in the process of raising funds for her bookstore. “The moment I was ready to get out of dodge, some higher power said, ‘No, it's you, and you need to stay here and do something about it.’”
That “do something” was no small task: building the borough’s first and only community bookstore.
After the Bronx’s lone general-interest bookstore, a Barnes & Noble in Co-op City, closed down in 2016, Santos, a former Wall Street human resources director, successfully crowdfunded $170,000 to bring a bookstore back to the borough.
The Bronx is the only predominantly Latinx borough in the city; more than a third of its population of 1.5 million hails from outside the U.S. But in New York’s other boroughs, like Manhattan and Brooklyn, and cities like Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Chicago, gentrification has seeped in, with new residents sending real estate prices skyrocketing and opportunistic developers peppering the landscape with new buildings.
Santos met that struggle head on as she built her bookstore. After a challenging search for a location, she finally settled on a spot just a couple blocks from the Harlem River, signing the lease in October 2017. After the lengthy process of getting permits for the space, Santos then went through “construction hell” from April to November of last year. Now the space is nearly complete, with Santos working on filling the shelves and completing the finishing touches. While new books come in, the ones on display were lovingly chosen.
Though the store is technically not open yet, Santos is getting close. In the back is a wine bar: It was important to Santos that the space be multifunctional, a place where community members could hold events or host meetings.
She’s created an entire section called “this is where black women and feminism intersect” and “hip hop is poetry too.” On the “classics” shelf, Santos has placed Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels next to Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. Titles like “The Women Who Made New York” and “African American and Latinx History in the U.S.” are prominent throughout the store. In the kids section, every book on display has a black or brown child on its cover. And once you get to the register, a mural of a young black girl, her curls reaching skyward, her nose in a book, two gold hoops glinting in the light, watches over you.
“I’ve had to learn everything along the way,” Santos says, but throughout it all, her community had her back.
“They supported me. Just cheering me on social media. When they see me, they treat me like Beyoncé,” she says, smiling. “It's dope, and it's humbling.”
She’s often stopped on the train and on the street, where she’s referred to as “the book lady” if people don’t know her name. Even as we talk at the register, a line of people forms behind me, eager to buy books and meet the woman who brought a bookstore to the Bronx.
“I follow you on Instagram!” says one older white woman, introducing herself.
“I’m sorry for anything I said!” Santos responds, laughing.
Friday’s event was the second time Rivera and Santos have worked together on a book launch. The first was two years ago, when Rivera released her first book at DreamYard, an arts nonprofit. Rivera now lives in Los Angeles but still travels back to the Bronx a few times a year to visit her family. Her grandmother used to live in the projects right around the Lit Bar, she says.
She’s excited about the new bookstore because it’s homegrown, but she admits she’s nervous about all the other changes creeping in.
“It's been wild. I come back a lot — it's always something new,” Rivera tells me. She talks about all the money being funneled into St. Mary’s Park in the South Bronx, money that should have gone toward the recreation area a long time ago, she notes. The timing makes her wonder who all this is for.
She’s equally skeptical of the renewed attention the Bronx has received in the last couple years, thanks in large part to highly visible ambassadors like Cardi B — of whom Rivera is a big fan.
“It's exciting for everyone to be hyped [about] the Bronx. I hope it pays for us, for the people who live here,” she says.
But she pushes back on the idea that the borough is undergoing a “renaissance.”
“We've been here,” Rivera says. “If you know hip-hop history, then you know that Bronx is where it's at. There's a long history of people creating and cultivating new ways of looking at things that maybe people have overlooked for a really long time.”
Rivera brings that social consciousness to her young-adult novels. The Education of Margot Sanchez was set in the Bronx, with protagonist Margot and her family, who own a local grocery store, talking to each other about the changes in the neighborhood. In Dealing in Dreams, a Latinx girl-gang confronts a dystopian future in which they fight for resources and power through violence.
That idea of a hypercapitalist society, with deep chasms between the haves and have-nots, doesn’t seem so far off for Rivera, who has vivid childhood memories of the Bronx burning. Between 1970 and 1980, the borough lost a substantial amount of housing and commercial building to fire and abandonment. Many blamed greedy landlords eager to cash in on insurance policies, but data shows that a dramatic drop in fire-safety resources — including the closure of multiple firehouses in the South Bronx — contributed to the decade-long disaster.
“It's like a cycle,” she says. With the Bronx being a hot commodity, she fears that luxury hotels and expensive condos will be the new norm, driving out the people who have endured so much and fought so hard to raise their families, keep their homes, and grow their businesses. Those anxieties helped inform the dystopian world of Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams.
“For me, the future is the projects being turned into coops. And are we going to allow that to happen?” Rivera asks, before providing the answer. “We can't.”
Her readers are eager to discuss these themes with a candor that many adults don’t have. The day before the launch, Rivera was in Harlem talking about her books with a class.
“We were just talking about sexuality and gentrification and addiction. Like hard topics. And they were just really open about it and excited,” she said. “Young kids are way ahead of [adults] when it comes to any of these conversations.”
At the book launch, Rivera discusses magical realism (“Ghost stories? That’s just family showing up!”), state violence, the power of chosen family, and always having to defend and explain the Bronx. Behind me, “yoooos” and snaps and head nods punctuate the discussion. Then Rivera is asked if she has any advice for the young writers in the room. As she speaks, you can feel the energy of the crowd shift toward her.
“I want you to take up as much space as you can because there’s a lot of people who don’t want you to be there,” she says. “You’re a writer when you say it. You’re an artist when you say it.”
As she imparts those words, Rivera is framed by a bookstore that reinforces that message. Thanks to Santos, women and people of color are front and center in this space, each of their stories, histories, and illustrations offering affirmation and discovery. After the talk is over, a line snakes through the store as people wait to pick up their copies of Reynolds’s and Rivera’s books, the authors engaging in quick conversations as they fold their book covers back and sign them.
More than an hour later, the line has dwindled, and I run into one of Crystal McIntyre’s students. Celivette Villanueva is a junior at the Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx. She doesn’t read much, she says, sticking to “whatever is handed to her in school,” but especially after attending tonight’s event, Celivette wants to change that.
As she approached the register to share a moment with Rivera, the 17-year-old cradles a novel — The Water Cure by Sophie MackIntosh — in her arms.
“It kind of motivates me, seeing other people looking at different books,” she says.
Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity.
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