Booksellers Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa, and Holly Nikodem first met while working at the Forest Hill Barnes and Noble. They met again when the store was closing—the three women had planned to return at the end of 2015 to say goodbye to the location and reminisce with fellow coworkers. What they hadn’tplanned on was opening a new bookstore, but that was before the three realized that without the Forest Hills B&N, Queens—a borough with a population of close to 2.3 million residents—would have only a single general purpose English-language bookstore, the independent Astoria Bookshop. (Queens bookstores such as Libreria Barco de Papel, Chung Hwa Book Store, Turn the Page Again, and New Life Christian Bookstore offer books on specific subjects or in languages other than English.) It galvanized them to help fill the gap with a bookstore of their own. Castillo, Noboa, and Nikodem hope to open the store in Forest Hills (or perhaps Kew Gardens or Jackson Heights) sometime between the end of 2016 and 2017 with the help of a Kickstarter campaign. They’ve already raised more than $30,000 with just under two weeks to go, and need another $40,000 to hit their goal. (Donate!) I spoke with Castillo, Noboa, and Nikodem via email about the project, its genesis, and the borough they are working so hard to help.
How did your recognizing Queens’ need for a new bookstore transform into deciding to open a business together? Vina Castillo: Personally, I have always known I wanted to work with [and be] surrounded by books, whether it was in publishing or as a bookstore owner. I proposed the idea to a group of friends and fellow booksellers of the Forest Hills’ Barnes and Noble where I worked for four years. We were reminiscing about how well we worked as team and saddened by the impending closure of the store where we had all met and made so many memories… I felt this was the right group of people to jump into this endeavor with! I mentioned that The Astoria Bookshop would officially be the only general-purpose bookstore left in the WHOLE borough, and we should change that as readers, booksellers, and part of the Queens community.
Natalie Noboa: [When I was a kid,] I thought it would be the coolest thing ever if I got to work in and especially own my own bookstore when I grew up. I was lucky enough to be hired at B&N when (in my opinion) all the right people were working there. Some of my strongest friendships were built in that building and so, of course, when the store was closing—even though we had already left the company—we came back to say our final goodbyes in the building that had become a second home to so many of us. And it was at this time that my long dormant dream of owning a bookstore combined with Vina’s enthusiasm and excitement over the very same idea. And she was very serious.
Holly Nikodem: I’d worked retail for a long, long time by the time I met Vina and Natalie at B&N. As often happens when you work retail for any duration, you find the people you connect with and get to talking about how cool it would be if you ever got to run our own store. You don’t put much stock in those conversations when they happen. But then, sometimes, someone like Vina comes along. It would have been very easy to laugh it off and let others chase that dream, but sometimes your purpose finds you. When Vina went on to point out that Queens would be left with one small independent bookstore, I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense. From there the decision to join Vina and Natalie in some way was a no-brainer; it was impossible not to get sucked in by their passion and drive. Soon I recognized that, between the three of us, we each had unique skills and experiences that would lend themselves to running an adorable little independent bookshop. This could actually happen! The decision to join their initiative wasn’t a light one and it has literally changed every aspect of my life, but I truly do think that we have what it takes to build and maintain a successful business.
How does Queens fit into New York’s larger literary culture? NN: Queens has (unfortunately) always felt like a forgotten borough: We get snow plows late in the game, music festivals skip us, tourists mostly forget we exist unless the US Open is happening. But all that has started changing. The Forest Hills Stadium starting hosting events again after “twenty years of silence.” The Queens International Night Market has had outstanding success. The Queens Lit Fest will be landing [in Long Island City] in July. The list goes on and on and shows that Queens is coming to life! The thing about Queens’ literary culture is that it doesn’t feel very united. There are so many wonderful things going on all over the borough: open mics, poetry readings, author signings, workshops, book clubs, book exchanges, meet ups, but there’s not enough tying them together. They all exist in their own little bubbles. But now, with Queens on the up and up, we’re finally making a statement about who we are and why we are so special in this city. Queens’ residents are the most diverse, loyal, creative, and wonderful people I know. I’m glad we are a part of this community. I’m glad we’re bringing our best to New York.
Why was it important for you to understand this project, in some ways, for Queens? VC: I think of the younger me who was fortunate enough to always have a bookstore nearby. It saddens me to think of kids who don’t even have that choice; to round a corner and not be able to find the next read that they can relate to or that might change their views no matter how small. Back in January when we were handing out flyers about our mission in front of the closed Forest Hills B&N, families would approach the doors and still try to open them—despite the signs stating they were closed and to go to the nearest B&N location in Manhasset! It was heartbreaking to see the disappointment from the adults, but especially their kids… Queens deserves a literary space.
NN: I am a Queens native born and bred. I was born in Flushing, I lived in Briarwood for 23 years, and now I live in Queens Village. For me, bookstores have always been a cornerstone to a well-rounded and vibrant community. Vina, Holly, and I thought “Who is going to fix this if we don’t?” We want the bookstore we build to be for everyone—for the children thirsty for knowledge, for the teenagers on a quest for adventures, for the adults looking for answers. This is a service to the community whether we are a privately owned business or not. We want to make this not just a bookstore, but a community haven that Queens so desperately needs. I believe in bookstores, books, reading, literature. I believe that Queens community members are thirsting for all of that and I truly believe that we deserve the best for our borough. A bookstore is just a part of that.
HN: I’ve always had friends and family in Queens; I was no stranger to the borough. Eventually my winding career path led me to the B&N in Forest Hills, where I worked for two years. That might not seem like a lot of time, but in that span I began to understand the various quirks and idiosyncrasies of Queens, NY. So while this project started out of a love of books, it’s enduring because of a love for the borough. Even from my limited experience, all the way out in Nassau County [where I live], I can see that Queens needs more bookstores. After witnessing the devotion people had for our B&N location, and seeing their confusion and worry upon realizing they were going to lose it, it became apparent that Queens deserves better.
Why do you think Brooklyn, in contrast to Queens, has been able to support so many independent bookstores over the past decade or so? I suspect this answer is a complicated one, but I’m interested to hear your perspectives as booksellers and soon-to-be small business owners. VC: Queens was always in a secure blanket of big-box stores, B&N and Borders. They had their choice of bookstore by easy subway/bus access. In one fell swoop, they all left the borough with no other indie bookstore to back the literary community up. The sheer size of Queens and the fact that it is the most diverse borough in the world… I think it was a wake-up call this year, when the community learned they have to take matters in their own hands and that despite the petitions (with thousands of signatures) to keep B&N, supporting an indie is the way to go!
HN: Brooklyn is so much more compact than Queens. That isn’t to say that Brooklyn isn’t incredibly diverse, it’s just diverse in a smaller space. Queens has more ground to cover when trying to build a solid identity and narrative, so it can be harder to have a unified front. Also, let’s face it, Brooklyn has been the fashionable, trendy place to live for well over a decade now. Trendy places breed independent businesses and localism. They attract people who desire very specific things, be it a children’s clothing boutique, an artisan cheese shop or an independent bookstore. Queens, on the other hand, is still viewed in a very utilitarian way. It has a reputation of being more working class, less niche—people don’t take the time to explore all the facets of Queens. Brooklyn has built a reputation of quirk and interest; Queens is overshadowed by airports and baseball stadiums. It’s equal parts metropolitan and suburban, which means that brand name companies always have their eye on Queens and independent businesses really need to anchor themselves and work hard. But that’s changing. Queens is working toward building its own brand of independent businesses from creperies in Astoria to coffee houses in Forest Hills and cinemas in Kew Gardens. And, hopefully, more bookstores!