Greenlight Bookstore Tells a Different Story

Scott Ballum
Bryan Sykora
Clara Kennedy

Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and her partner Rebecca Fitting opened Greenlight Bookstore in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. We talked to her about the place for independent bookstores in today's world, their inspiring funding model, and about creating a community space that people want to spend time in.

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Jessica Stockton Bagnulo: I feel like every time there’s a story about independent bookstores its like, ‘Oh, isn’t it sad, the independent books stores are dying. No more of them, just Amazon and chains.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s not the whole story!’

My partner Rebecca and I, we were both committed to the idea that you have to run a bookstore as a business. It’s not just this sort of hobby that you do because you like books. That doesn’t—I mean maybe that was possible in the 70s, before there were chains and the internet, but at this point you have to be very aware of the financial side and make sure that you are going to be able to make ends meet—and make a profit. But at the same time, that didn’t conflict philosophically for us with the idea that we’re creating a community space, that we’re making a neighborhood institution, somewhere that people gather and meet each other and encounter literature and encounter new ideas. Those all seem to go together.

Fall of 2008, there’s like this dive in the national economy, and everybody got scared. And we’re like, maybe this takes another ten years before this happens. And it was heartbreaking. But there was nothing I’d ever wanted to do this much, you know? There was no other life I could imagine. So we were just going to keep trying for as long as it took. I figured somehow we would make it happen. It sounds totally crazy at this point, and yet, it worked.

It is kind of traditional with a small business to get small loans from family and friends. But we didn’t really have that many family and friends who had that much money. So we’re like, can we extend this to people in the community who’d be willing to loan us a thousand dollars at a time? The response was overwhelming—and we raised about $70,000 through community loans. It was worth it not only because it helped us get the capital together, but because there are all these people who feel so invested in this store. Literally, they own a piece of it.

The decisions that we feel good about, also tend to be good business decisions. We have this big table of local Brooklyn authors and New York authors, and we’re emphasizing that a lot in the events that we host. It’s not like it’s a purely philanthropic decision, I feel like everything we do is like, we’re creating this environment that people want to spend time in. You can buy a book anywhere, what we can offer is an experience, a place that you can come in and connect with other people, and find out about your neighborhood.

Part of why we’re doing well is this community that we’ve kind of lucked into, and how strong a need there was for a bookstore here, how many books people can afford to buy here; and this sort of literary center that already existed that we just made ourselves a part of—and people have been completely embracing us. People said that they wanted a bookstore, and they were telling the truth.

I feel like there’s an increasing sense among people who love books that there’s a value to an independent bookstore, that there’s something you can get there that you can’t get from clicking on a button on the internet—and that’s great for us. But the story is not that independent bookstores are dying. Independent bookstores are evolving and are still a piece of the picture.