By Lindsey Wojcik
Nestled between a nail salon and a residential building on Austin Street—a shopping mecca in the heart of the Queens, N.Y., neighborhood Forest Hills—is a welcoming café that serves organic coffee, as well as vegetarian and vegan bites. Although Starbucks is nearby, the Red Pipe Café stands out on its own as a charming, much quieter shop where Forest Hills residents can gab with friends over a sandwich or take in a new book while sipping a piping hot latte.
As I entered the Red Pipe Café on a chilly February night, it became clear why Natalie Noboa, Vina Castillo, and Holly Nikodem selected the location as the meeting place to chat about The Queens Bookshop initiative. The café is less than a five-minute walk from the former space occupied by Barnes & Noble, where Noboa, Castillo, and Nikodem once worked together. The Barnes & Noble, beloved by neighborhood residents for more than 20 years, closed late last year. In an effort to fill the void caused by Barnes & Noble’s absence, the women launched the Queens Bookshop initiative with hopes to bring an independent bookstore to Forest Hills.
The Red Pipe Café served as the perfect setting to meet Noboa, Castillo, and Nikodem. Its cozy atmosphere—similar to what I imagine The Queens Bookshop’s space will offer—helped guide an effortless conversation about the trio’s goals and dreams for the bookstore they long to create. That discussion evolved into an in-depth feature about The Queens Bookshop initiative. However, some important and fun topics were left unused at the bottom of my notes. The benefits of bookselling and book recommendations are front and center in this previously cut-for-space Q&A with Noboa, Castillo, and Nikodem.
Lindsey Wojcik: What stands out to you as the most rewarding benefit of being a bookseller?
Natalie Noboa: I've worked at Borders, Books-A-Million, and Barnes & Noble, so I have a little bit of history. My absolute favorite thing was telling people what my favorite books were and having them actually buy them and come back and be like, "You were right!" I would especially do that for little kids because my favorite book as a 10-year-old was The City of Ember, which in my opinion is totally underrated. I would recommend it, they would get it, and their parents or somebody would come back and be like, "They want the rest of the series." I love that feeling. I think it's going to be easier to do that in a less corporate environment because we’ll have more freedom to go up to someone and talk about the books we love.
Vina Castillo: Yes, recommending books is one of my favorite parts of being a bookseller. But it is also refreshing when customers share their favorite reads with me, I’ll never forget when an elderly woman recommended The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Her pitch was that her granddaughter had begged her to read it and once she did, it brought her to tears and became one of her—and thanks to her one of mine—favorite books despite it being shelved in the YA section. I could rant forever about books being dismissed because of the age range in which they are shelved.
I also really love creating my own displays. I'm looking forward to doing that again in our own store. There are so many underrated books that should be displayed and appreciated by readers.
NN: The opposite is true; there are so many books that are displayed that shouldn't necessarily be.
Holly Nikodem: Same. The most rewarding thing is when you a recommend a book—especially for me, because I worked in weird parts of the store, like comic books. Filling the shelf and listening to the people next to you talk and adding your two cents, "Oh yeah, I read that," and having them turn around and say, "Oh, you read that too?" and making instant five-minute friends over things you have in common. Maybe you'll never see them again or maybe they'll come back be like: "Oh did you find the newest issue of whatever it is?" But it was always cool to see them light up because they share something with someone.
LW: Why do you feel that bringing literacy to Queens is important?
NN: I went to school to become an English teacher so I’ve seen what kids can be like. It's crazy to me to see that they aren't that interested in reading. It's not just a school thing or about comprehension. For me, it's about getting invested in a really good book and being able to go to so many different places and go on so many different adventures without ever leaving your head. It's so sweet and so nice. And to see kids who are supposed have so much excitement about this just not care, it breaks my heart. If they don't see people excited about reading, it's out of sight, out of mind. If they don't even see a bookstore, why are they going to want to read a book?
HN: One of the counters I stumbled upon, was [doesn’t Queens] have a lot of libraries? But as a child, owning your favorite book and no matter what time, going and picking up that book, and having that comfort, is important. For an academic though, owning a book is also important. Let's say you're not very good at school and need to take your own time, owning the book is so much better than borrowing the book. It's yours. If you need to write in the book, go ahead and write in it. If it takes you longer, it takes you longer. If you have to revisit it later, fine. Later, when you grow up and find your favorite book all dog-eared, you can remember how it changed you. That's why, sure there are libraries, but the ownership of books is a completely different outlook.
LW: If your store was open today, what would be your staff pick?
HN: A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. It’s one of three books I've read more than once. It's just a fun little fantasy novel.
VC: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. My first copy—yes, I own multiple editions of it—is extremely yellowed, bent, and stained because I have loaned it to anyone and everyone who has asked me to recommend them a book.
NN: Until the End of the World by Sarah Lyons Fleming. It's a zombie apocalypse series that is not as appreciated as it should be.
LW: What's a book you can't live without?
VC: The entire Harry Potter series. These books played a big part in my proud realization that I am a book lover through and through.
HN: House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. It entered my life sophomore year of college and has been present ever since in some way or another. Also one of my favorite albums stemmed directly from it. I listen to it every day.
NN: The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau. It was one of the first books I found and purchased on my own as a kid and I fell in love with it. It introduced me to the genre I am obsessed with to this day and shaped me as a growing reader.
LW: What's a random fact about each of you?
NN: There are mixed reactions on this. Some people get very mad, some people don't care, but I have never in my life eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
HN: I'm amazed.
NN: It's become a matter of principle, and now I can't. I had to have been 19 or 20 when I realized I had never eaten one.
HN: I have been stranded in the middle of the Serengeti in Tanzania twice. I volunteered two summers in a row with a school off the shores of Lake Victoria in Tanzania. Getting to the main city of Arusha to this school, twice our Jeep broke down in the Serengeti. One time we were stranded for hours and they drove us to another hotel to wait. The second time, we got stranded and it was dark. You're not allowed to drive in the Serengeti after dark, so they found us a rest house, which are basically these houses that people rent out in the Serengeti if you can't get out. We rented out the whole house and they locked us in to keep the baboons out. We got out the next morning.
VC: I have a stranded story. I was in Dublin back in 2010 when the volcano erupted. My friends and I were stranded for three nights. The planes weren't running, so we hopped from Dublin to London and took four to five trains and two boats to get home. We slept at the airport and took showers at the YMCA. It was crazy but definitely brought us closer as friends.
NN: Now my peanut butter fact seems lame! Holly has a stranded story in the Serengeti, Vina has a stranded story because of a volcano. I have a volcano story! I climbed a volcano in Ecuador.
To learn more about The Queens Bookshop, read Lindsey’s feature “The Queens Bookshop Aims to Bring Books Back to Forest Hills.” To learn more about the future bookshop, visit its official website, like its Facebook page, or follow it on Twitter @bookshopqueens.