By Lindsey Wojcik
When Vina Castillo was in her early teens, she scribbled a drawing of the bookstore she dreamed of opening one day on a napkin. As an avid reader at an early age, Castillo hoped to find a career in which she could be around books all the time. In college, she focused on English literature and publishing, which cemented the idea that working with books in some capacity—whether with a publisher or in a store—was the path to take. Through her journey in the literary world, she found herself working at literary agencies, publishers, and, eventually, during her senior year of college, the Barnes & Noble located in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, N.Y.
At Barnes & Noble, Castillo, 26, connected with other book lovers—customers and colleagues alike. The environment at the Forest Hills Barnes & Noble was unlike any other location in New York City, Castillo says, noting that she had previously worked at the four-story location in Manhattan's Union Square. The Forest Hills store did not have a cafe or music store, and it became a meeting place for many neighborhood residents. The staff was also tight-knit.
However, after 20 years in Forest Hills, Barnes & Noble decided to close the location last December. The announcement shook local residents and the store's employees. An online petition to keep the store open garnered more than 6,300 signatures. Although Castillo had left her position at the location for another pursuit months prior to the closing, she recognized the demand for a bookstore in Forest Hills, and saw an opportunity to realize her dream of opening one of her own.
She pitched the idea to a group of her former Barnes & Noble colleagues. “During a giant group discussion with a bunch of us who used to work together, Vina said, ‘Hey, I’m just throwing this out there: What if we opened our own store?'” recalls Holly Nikodem, who also worked at the Forest Hills Barnes & Noble with Castillo.
“I said, ‘If each of you chipped in, it could happen,’” Castillo says.
Some 15 people were included in the group chat on Instagram, but only two—Nikodem, 30, and Natalie Noboa, 23, who had also both left their positions at Barnes & Noble before it closed—took Castillo’s suggestion seriously. Thus, The Queens Bookshop, an initiative to bring a bookshop back to Forest Hills, was founded.
Like Castillo, Noboa, a lifelong Queens resident, has always wanted to open a bookstore. "Since I've lived in this neighborhood or near this neighborhood my entire life, I grew up going to that Barnes & Noble. I thought it was a dream job to work there," Noboa says.
She fulfilled her dream, spending five years as a bookseller at Books-A-Million, Borders, and, of course, Barnes & Noble. "It satisfied that itch I had that I wanted to work with books because I love reading. It's something I've always wanted to do—open a bookstore."
While Nikodem did not have a childhood dream of opening a bookshop, she was an avid reader, who was heavily influenced by visits to bookstores as a child. Growing up on Long Island, she spent weekends going to Borders with her mother. "We would go, and I would pick out my book, climb up the little stairs on [the Borders] stage, plop myself on the highest step, and read," Nikodem says. "Spending time in bookstores have always been my favorite memories."
Nikodem worked in retail for 10 years—and in management for seven—but never expected to work in a bookstore. She longed to own a store of her own, but did not set her sights on books. Her experience at Barnes & Noble reminded her of the memories she collected at Borders, and as a result, she was drawn to Castillo's idea. "Working at the bookstore was amazing," Nikodem says. "Once the idea of opening a bookstore happened, I realized it was right. That's where memories are made, let's open a bookstore."
The Tweet Read ‘Round Queens
The trio knew that a strong online presence would be needed to inform the public about their initiative. They launched a website detailing The Queens Bookshop's mission, which included an email list for supporters to receive updates on the store’s progress. Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook profiles were also set up. “After that, I started emailing independent bookstores,” Castillo says.
On Jan. 6, Astoria Bookshop, an independent bookshop based in Astoria, N.Y., tweeted:
The tweet elicited a strong response from Queens residents, publishers, editors, writers, and media. “The second that tweet went out and people started talking to us, we knew this was going to happen,” Nikodem says. “We could not back out now, and it was a good thing. It was a push we needed so nobody had second thoughts about opening the store. It was a jump in the deep end.”
With the understanding that bookstores are community spaces, the three women did not solely rely on their growing online presence to spread the word about their cause. They took the streets of Forest Hills and spent time handing out fliers explaining their plans to bring a bookstore back to the neighborhood to passersby.
“After Barnes & Noble closed, people would still go up to the doors and try to open them,” Noboa says.
“People didn’t understand it was closed, and they’d have to go to Manhattan [to get their books],” Nikodem adds. So the women explained their mission to Forest Hills residents, hoping to pique their interest and gain their support.
Castillo, Noboa, and Nikodem are confident that the community’s support will help them fund their endeavor. They plan to launch a two-month Kickstarter campaign in late April.
“Right now, it’s funded by us,” Nikdoem says. “Memberships, legal documents, etc., have been funded by us. The Kickstarter is really going to help us with inventory, a point-of-sale system, hardware to run the business, things of that nature.”
The perks for supporters of the Kickstarter campaign have been finalized, and the women have taken the community’s suggestions for those perks seriously. “It was a good way to start getting the community involved in this and give them ownership over it,” Nikdoem adds.
The Kickstarter campaign launch will coincide with Book Expo, an event where the trio plans to network. “Book Expo is where all authors, publishers, and book bloggers come together, so to have them all in one location works great for networking face to face,” Castillo says.
The women will also utilize other New York area literary events like the Queens Book Festival and the Q-Boro Literary Crawl—a bar-crawl type event that celebrates national poetry month with “hundreds of writers and poets”—to network and spread the word about The Queens Bookshop initiative.
Obstacles abound when opening any small business, but independent bookstores have suffered from a new crop of competitors in the last few decades. From big-box mega-stores, online retail giants like Amazon, as well as the growing popularity of e-books and e-readers, surviving independents face many challenges. However, the women behind The Queens Bookshop initiative are not worried.
“The people who walk into an independent bookstore are not the same people who shop on Amazon,” Noboa says. “For example, we were passing out fliers and someone said, ‘There are too many bookstores, and nobody wants a new one.’ I was getting sad about it but realized he’s never going to walk into our store. He’s not our customer, so it doesn’t hurt me anymore. I do understand there are e-books, Amazon, and ordering books on Amazon, but even with that, I still walk into bookstores all the time.”
“That’s the thing about independent bookstores,” Nikodem adds. “We see it as more of a community space. Even though it is a business and selling is important, it’s more about the atmosphere, it’s more about community space, customer service, and interacting with people.”
Facing the challenges of opening a small business, the trio has reached out many independent bookshops, like Astoria Bookshop and the Los Angeles-based The Ripped Bodice, for advice.
“We have been emailing a lot of independent bookshops about our idea, and everyone has been so supportive,” Noboa says. “It’s so crazy to see in the business world, where everyone is supposed to be competing, but the independents are just like, ‘Another one—our family’s growing bigger!’ It’s crazy.”
In addition to business tips, some practical knowledge has been bestowed upon them. “The best piece of advice wasn’t even a piece of business advice,” Nikodem explains. “It was just, ‘Have each other’s back, and make sure that you’re okay.’”
So far, the women seem to be more than okay. Each light up when prompted to describe what they visualize the store will look and feel like when it finally opens. Forest Hills is the ideal place for their store, but they are open to other neighborhoods. However, Noboa has a “dream location” in Forest Hills already in mind. “I see dark wood shelves, cozy, comfy chairs, a seating area in the front with the register off the side,” she says.
Nikdoem does not immediately offer descriptive language for how she envisions the store will look, but quips, “I want a shop pet, specifically a cat named Pages.”
And Castillo’s vision is quite different from the drawing she made of her dream bookshop as a teen. “We want a reading nook,” she says. “And we want it to be comforting.”
Adds Nikodem: “At the end of the day, Natalie grew up going to Barnes & Noble, and I went to Borders. We want to be the place where somebody brings their kids on the weekend, where they grow up, and when they’re in their 20s or 30s, they feel like they want to open a bookstore too because they spent every weekend at this one place as a kid, and it was an inspiration. I want our bookstore to be for everyone else what bookstores were to us."