Nestled in historic Greenpoint, Brooklyn is a New York City miracle – an independent bookstore that is thriving because its first priority is its neighbors and its first responsibility is its books. Called simply WORD, it is a place where neighbors gather, children learn to read, literary stalwarts play on a basketball team and books lovers match up.
The store, which measures just 1000 square feet, opened in March 2007 says owner Christine Onorati who moved to Greenpoint after living on Long Island. Long a haven for New York City’s Polish community, the neighborhood has seen an influx of young professionals and families during the last few years.
“Greenpoint is like a small town in the middle of the city, very tight knit,” she says. “A lot of people have lived here forever and a lot of new people are moving in.”
The store’s books are chosen for their potential appeal to the immediate neighborhood, she adds. “We think it should be something the neighborhood would like. We’re very small so we want to be sure everything we have here is carefully selected.”
Current books on the shelves range from Ernest Hemingway‘s classic “The Sun Also Rises” to “Tinkers” by Paul Harding, the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. Non-fiction books include “Cheever: A Life”, Blake Bailey’s biography of the acclaimed author, and “Where Men Win Glory” by Jon Krakauer. John Grisham is nowhere to be found. The store also has a significant children’s section reflecting the large number of young children who live in the immediate neighborhood.
“People come knowing what kind of store we are,” says Manager Stephanie Anderson, adding that being “totally local” has helped them survive in the tough economy. “I think of a lot of customers like that about us; it’s good for us.”
“People who love books always find a way to buy books.”
Along with books, stationery and greeting cards WORD also provides “Between the Covers: a Matchmaking Service for Book Lovers.” It was started after a customer spied two of their favorite books on the shelf and jokingly asked who the books were for.
Some of the postings on the matchmaking bulletin board include a woman looking for a man and whose favorite authors are Somerset Maugham, Jane Austen, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Another is for a man looking for a woman, listing two of his favorites as “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” by Judy Blume and “The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers.
“There have been several successful matches,” says Stephanie.
The club also sponsors authors’ readings, special events such as a dance party for local kids, singles mixers at a nearby bar and a Sunday morning runners group. This past summer they also hosted a basketball league where participation wasn’t dependent on someone’s physical prowess but on their literary knowledge.
“It sort of started as a joke,” says Stephanie. “We didn’t think that many people would respond…thought we would just have a pickup game. But so many people responded we ended up having a full league.” The players, half of whom came from Greenpoint and half from other New York City neighborhoods, first had to pass a test which included questions like “ What is the best selling book of all time?” and “ “Name a book that has been banned in the United States in the last 100 years.”
“We made up the test just to make sure everyone in the league liked to read,” she continues. The league champions were The Red Herrings, beating out among others the Moby Dunks.
The store also serves as a local meeting place for the neighborhood. Jeff Salane, a children’s book editor, lives three blocks away. He has lived in Greenpoint for nine years, along with his wife, who is expecting a child any day, and his daughter. They are weekly visitors to the store. He admits to not owning any e-books, saying “I like to have the finished book in my hand. I like to have the finished product.”
“As a bookstore it’s important to the community,” he says sitting outside WORD one recent Saturday afternoon, adding that its events allow people to personally meet authors and illustrators as well as others from the neighborhood.
“It’s a pretty brave market to go into,” he continues. “Books are not always happy products. It’s not like WORD is selling something that is always sweet like ice cream. It’s a different kind of nourishment.”
“They know what kind of books to bring in,” he adds. “They have a good read on what people around here want to read. This kind of bookstore puts more of a face on publishing.”
He also pays homage to the staff’s open-mindedness about both their books and their customers.
“They have opinions but they’re not opinionated about their selection. I don’t think I would be judged if I came in to buy anything there.”
After stopping by the store, visitors can take a tour of Greenpoint, starting with walking just a few blocks to the waterfront to take in a spectacular view of Manhattan. Afterwards, a stroll down Franklin Street where the store is located will take someone past numerous boutiques and restaurants. Visitors can then walk down Manhattan Avenue where many stores reflect the area’s Polish roots. A must stop is the Peter Pan Bakery where one can sample what many say are the best doughnuts in Brooklyn.
The nearest subway to WORD is the G line which does not run in Manhattan. Travelers need to change subway lines in the nearby borough of Queens. The trains run fairly frequently and helpful New York City Transit employees will steer visitors in the right direction.
WORD is open from 11 am-9 pm every day. For complete information log onto http://www.wordbrooklyn.com/. For full information on the subway, including maps, log onto http://www.mta.info/nyct/maps/submap.htm.