Tucked away on a narrow block of Front Street in DUMBO, a short red stoop leads to one of Brooklyn’s unlikeliest bookstores, Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop. Inside it’s an open, spare space—kind of like the fashionably empty boutiques in SoHo that only have three dresses hanging on a single rack. It’s a conscious decision by owners and poets Jared White and Farrah Field, who describe on Berl’s website a desire to present “not a dense hive of shelves but a friendly, curated selection of small press books.” The empty space makes a lot more sense during an event—and Berl’s hosts a lot of events—it fills up with people, lounging in chairs, leaning against bookshelves, sitting cross-legged on the floor.
Berl’s was born in 2010 at a booth at the Brooklyn Flea. Together White and Field had experience in both publishing and bookselling, and when they met at Columbia’s MFA program (she was finishing as he was starting), they harnessed their twin energies to create a roving pop-up store for poems. “There’s a phenomenal amount of energy in the world of small press poetry right now,” White says. “It feels like a golden age.”
They moved into their permanent storefront three years ago, and so far they’ve made it work. “I came in thinking we’d have to work really hard to sell poetry,” White said. But they discovered nearly every time they set up shop at the Flea that a passerby would know one of the authors on display in their booth, a former roommate, a cousin, a friend of a friend. Poetry touched more people’s lives than he expected.
“Our viability comes from book and art sales,” he says. Events also play a big part in their business plan. White is proud that every reading they host is free and open to the public.
He recalls a performance by poet Vincent Toro. White finds a copy of Stereo Island Mosaic to show off some of the lines, widely spaced and scattered across the page. He admires its elegance, its turn towards the experimental. In person, Toro is wildly performative. “His whole body’s in it,” White says. “He’s on the floor, screaming.”
White remembers the night in particular because, mid-performance, an older man came in the store and started shouting from the back. He was also holding a pumpkin. “I think this guy had an idea of disrupting a poetry reading,” White says, wide eyed. “I think he was saying something derogatory about the idea of a poetry shop.” But Toro could not, would not, be interrupted. His full-bodied reading continued. And the protester? “He quieted down,” White says. “He got arrested by it.” As soon as Toro finished, the man in the back slammed the pumpkin down on the display table and left. “We kept the pumpkin for several months.”
White and Farrah (and their two children) live in the neighborhood. “Brooklyn has such an awesome literary history down here,” he says, mentioning Walt Whitman (who worked at the nearby Brooklyn Daily Eagle) and Marianne Moore (whose collection Tell Me, Tell Me has the Brooklyn Bridge on its cover). “The community is beyond vast,” White says of poetry in the borough today. “Brooklyn’s endless profusion of poets really humbles and excites me.”
Berl’s fits into that community by offering a space for poets and artists to come together in person, but also—and more especially—a place to find and buy small press books that otherwise would only be available online. “Bringing this together is special,” White says, and he’s right.
“There’s an incredible sense of creative energy in Brooklyn. The more you learn about the past, the more it feels like an unbroken history.”