Some people buy mixtapes from vendors on the street. Others buy hoodies and hats. Noelle Santos and her friends bought books.
“We used to put our little dollars together and buy books out of the trunks of people's cars in Parkchester under the trains,” said Santos, who recently garnered attention for her campaign to bring an independent bookstore, the Lit Bar, to the Bronx. The girls would “buy books that were totally inappropriate for us,” like Sapphire’s Push, Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, and Omar Tyree’s Flyy Girl.
When Santos says “inappropriate,” she means stories about sex, domestic abuse, drugs, and gun violence—the sorts of things Santos and her friends would see play out in their daily lives. But these were also stories with black and brown characters who fell in love and found their voices and learned how to extract joy from their struggles. Stories that reminded them of themselves.
This is why Santos paused her bookstore campaign when she heard that another hometown girl, young adult author Lilliam Rivera, needed a bookseller to help launch her debut novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, in the Bronx this weekend. The book tells the story of a Puerto Rican girl struggling with her family, her identity, friends, boys, and a rising tide of gentrification.
“I was like ‘Okay, I'm dropping everything,’” said Santos, who had spent the past two years fundraising, hosting pop-up events, doing press, and scoping out retail space for the Lit Bar. “‘I have to be a part of this.’”
The task of selling Margot Sanchez fell to Santos because the Bronx is a “book desert”—an area with a serious dearth of bookstores, often low-income and with high Latinx or black populations. Even before the closure of the lone Barnes & Noble (which, Santos points out, wasn’t even accessible by train), 1.4 million Bronxites would have to travel into neighboring boroughs like Manhattan to buy books. A quick Google search reveals that just across the Harlem River, in the Washington Heights neighborhood alone, you can find at least four bookstores to the Bronx’s zero.
Santos knows as well as anybody that her borough is in transition. Almost a third of the Bronx lives in poverty, and less than 20% of its residents go to college. It’s a diverse community—the only predominantly Latinx borough in New York City—with more than a third of its population hailing from outside the U.S. But like Manhattan and Brooklyn before it, the Bronx now faces the hailstorm of gentrification: new residents, skyrocketing real estate prices, and opportunistic developers. Santos, who works full-time on Wall Street as a human resources director, knows that she’s the exception in the Bronx—yet even she can’t afford the new skyrises being built.
“That's just blatant colonization,” Santos said.
For Santos and Rivera, getting a book like Margot Sanchez into the hands of young Bronx readers is another chapter in shifting the borough's narrative: As it transforms, who will determine what stays and what goes? And who will be charged with telling the Bronx’s story?
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If it weren’t for the idea to launch a bookstore two years ago, Santos says she likely would have left the Bronx by now.
“I used to measure my success by how far I could get away from the Bronx,” Santos said. “The moment I was ready to get out of dodge…some higher power said ‘No, it's you, and you need to stay here and do something about it.’” Before then, Santos, who used to frequent the one Barnes & Noble in the borough, wasn’t aware that the Bronx was a book desert.
In recent years, the focus on book deserts has intensified as educators and policy analysts try to find ways to close the literacy rates (and by extension, the achievement gaps) between the very poor and the affluent. Recent studies have shown that without access to books, children from low-income families fall far behind their middle-class peers when it comes to vocabulary acquisition and reading comprehension.
While the New York Public Library system is among the most robust in the nation, researchers found that libraries alone can’t make up the reading gap among the nation’s poor. One study revealed that only 8% of low-income families used a public library, citing fears of pricey fines, reluctance to fill out a library card (a form of government ID), or simply not being acclimated to library spaces. Online retailers like Amazon also aren’t viable options for many low-income families, since many of them do not have high-speed internet at home.
Often, this lack of access is misconstrued as a lack of desire—that poor black and brown people simply don’t value literature. But a recent study directly contradicts this line of thinking: Researchers set up a vending machine full of free books in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and within six weeks, residents had taken 27,000 books. This is why Santos insists that she isn’t creating a market, but serving one that’s already there.
As for Rivera, she remembers always having books around as a child: “My mom, she learned English just watching soap operas, you know? But she knew enough to [be] like, 'Let's get them to a library.’” At home, Rivera would pore over Charlotte’s Web, Frankenstein, and Judy Blume’s books.
Many of Blume’s characters lived in the suburbs, so to Rivera, “it was almost like reading science fiction.” Rivera, who grew up in the Bronx in the ’70s and ’80s, remembers the beginning of the crack epidemic, and being aware from an early age of all the ways her home was different from Manhattan. But Blume’s world was also “universal because it was that feeling of ‘Oh, you feel lonely? I feel lonely.’ Or, ‘You feel like an outcast? I feel like an outcast, too.’”
The same rings true for Santos, who was given A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by her mother, and was so deeply moved by Matilda that she sometimes refers to herself as a “black Matilda” and plans to get a tattoo of the Roald Dahl character on her forearm.
Not only were there always books in her home, but “reading was my positive reinforcement and my negative reinforcement,” she said. Her mother, who worked in downtown Manhattan, used to bring home books as treats, while her father would make her copy words out of the dictionary or encyclopedia when she misbehaved.
This perception that black and Latinx readers like Santos and Rivera don’t exist isn’t confined to booksellers. The publishing industry has a dismal track record offering diverse books to readers of color. According to Lee and Low, which calls itself the “largest multicultural children's book publisher” in the U.S., 79% of the publishing industry overall is white.
The paucity of non-white authors—and stories that center on people of color—reflects that.
Another avenue to get books, particularly those that center non-white experiences, into the hands of the children who need them the most is through a school curriculum. But neither Santos nor Rivera encountered books in school that mirrored their lives. Rivera was in her teens when she came across Sandra Cisneros and Esmeralda Santiago, authors she had to seek out in the library herself. For Santos, very few of the books assigned to her spoke to or stayed with her.
“I was not reflected. And not just my race,” said Santos. “With Francie and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, even though she wasn't black in the hood, she was still going through things that I could relate to. Julius Caesar didn't make me a better person. The only thing it's done for me is [allow me to] answer a few more Jeopardy questions correctly.”
Which is why books like Rivera’s Margot Sanchez and Santos’s Lit Bar campaign are so important. They provide the readers of the Bronx with a rare acknowledgement that their lives are worthy of literature.
In many ways The Education of Margot Sanchez and its eponymous main character’s struggle with self-definition parallels the Bronx’s own battle with identity in the face of a major demographic shift. In the book, she wrestles with being known as “princesa” to her family and her neighborhood, and being Margot to the prep school friends she wants to impress. Margot has to come to terms with what being from the Bronx means to her—and the ways she stereotypes and values those around her.
Writing this novel, Rivera was inspired by summers in the city.
“Everyone is outside. Everyone is hanging out, there's always live music somewhere. There's a coquito lady in the corner. It's just, like, magic,” said Rivera. It’s this aspect of the Bronx—its magic, its innovation, its humanity—that is so often lost in conversations about the borough and its problems.
“There was just sort of this view of the Bronx as though there weren't people living real lives there,” Rivera said. “It just seemed like a really sad place or really violent place, a dangerous place to live.”
Now that’s changing, of course. But as the inevitable wave of new blood courses into the Bronx, Santos, like Rivera, hopes the borough can maintain its identity—its toughness, yes, but also the magic born from bearing out the struggle. This is part of what her work with the Lit Bar symbolizes. As with any local, independent bookstore, the Lit Bar functions as an extension of the community’s identity: the local authors and stories it highlights, the readers who ask for recommendations or attend readings. Because reading is a way of seeing, a way of centering your attention on what’s valuable.
Santos and Rivera aren’t just creating an oasis in the desert. They are pointing our gaze to the life that was always teeming there. But through their work, the young readers of the Bronx may finally have a little more room to grow: a place where they can reach for a book on the shelf and recognize their names, and their hood, in the pages.