It’s chess night at Molasses Books, and customers are crowded around boards, plotting their next move. Some spill out onto the sidewalk to have a smoke, and owner Matt Winn seems to know them all.
The space is small, with tables in alcoves butting up against windows. The walls are lined with bookshelves, and overflow spills out onto a table display in the middle of the shop. A sign hangs over the bar reading “no laptops after 8” alongside a conceptual sculpture of interwoven wires. The lighting is dim, and the music, emanating from a record player behind the bar, is just loud enough to hear over the din of patrons playing chess and browsing the books.
It reads a little unkempt, and perhaps not ergonomically designed, but Winn says that’s what makes the shop work.
Winn, a writer and graduate of The New School opened Molasses Books, now a mainstay in Bushwick, in 2012 after selling used books on the street.
“Selling used books is a hustle,” Winn said.
From that hustle, Winn said, Molasses Books arose: as a mix between a bookstore, bar, and cafe. It provides Bushwick with a workspace and gathering spot for those involved in the north Brooklyn literary scene.
“I was interested in creating a sort of neo-literary salon,” Winn said. “It was going to be engaged with a literary scene and the poets I knew.”
The shop, located on Hart Street between Knickerbocker and Wilson Avenues, is located on a residential street, nestled between apartment buildings. The menu is sparse, offering a few beer options, two types of wine, and hot and iced coffee. According to Winn, it’s less about the coffee and booze than about the atmosphere and the books.
“The coffeeshop is an accoutrement to the literary space,” Winn said.
“The fact that I didn’t know what I was doing resulted in an odd layout and vibe, it became exciting and unique,” Winn said.
The shop is a homey place, and Winn himself is welcoming, taking time to chat with customers who have turned into friends in the local literary scene.
Ryan Sambol, a singer and songwriter who lives in Bushwick part-time was hanging out at the shop on a recent Tuesday night. Sambol said he buys at least a book a day from Molasses when he’s in New York.
He and Winn met when he first moved to Bushwick through a mutual friend, and Sambol found himself brought into the fold of the community.
Recently Sambol found himself in New York for less than 24 hours thanks to a flight delay. He said he immediately came to Molasses, where he dropped his bags and hung out until it was time to fly out.
After Winn attended Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair this year, held at PS1, he realized he wanted Molasses to be more engaged in making art and printing books.
“I want to attract people that are excited as books as objects, people engaged in small press who are engaged in that world,” Winn said. “It’s a social space.”
Now the store has a small printing press of its own, and has already published six books, including two of Winn’s own, written under the pen name, Hen Winn – Clown Car and Logic Poems. Winn is trying to make Bushwick a hub for new writing and emerging writers.
“Bushwick is where I live, it’s where I hang out,” Winn said. He has lived in the neighborhood for ten years, and currently has an apartment just two blocks from his bookstore.
The literary scene in Bushwick has evolved alongside the neighborhood.
“I feel like there was a moment about two years ago, again when Mellowpages existed, [when] the community was really strong,” Winn said. “The consistency of the readings here and down the street and the camaraderie made it feel like a community.”
Mellowpages, which used to operate on Bogart Street, across from Roberta’s, closed in 2015 after being open for two years.
The people behind Mellowpages still host literary events in the neighborhood at a space called Silent Barn, a community center that’s a fifteen minute walk from Molasses, but Winn said things slowed a bit after that venue closed. But today, other spaces like Alphaville, a bar just a block from Molasses, are hosting regular readings.
Winn isn’t threatened by other businesses in Bushwick embracing the literary scene. Instead, he seems excited, almost energized by it.
The neighborhood has also been home to rapid gentrification, as long-term residents have been pushed out by rising rents and property taxes. Winn is cognizant of the changes in his neighborhood, and noted that he tries to be as community focused as he can be.
“The goal is always to be an interlocular and not an interloper,” Winn said. “We have good relationships with neighbors. Bookstores benefit neighborhoods.”
He noted, though, that he wishes he had a larger selection of Spanish language books.