On a humid day last August, a crew of volunteer booksellers came to a familiar space in Washington Heights and packed up the products that had been Word Up Bookshop, a spot first conceived as a week-long pop-up that turned into a yearlong community haven.
The task, like most goodbyes, was bittersweet.
Volunteers and patrons alike loved the store’s prime location at Broadway and West 176th Street. While packing, though, volunteers running the shop were looking ahead to the store’s next location which they envision as a long-term business in Washington Heights.
“A bookstore, it’s more than a shop. It’s a community center,” said Washington Heights native Emmanuel “DJ Boy” Abreu, 28. “In my day, I never went into a bookstore. I was just roaming around the streets because there was nothing else to do.” He found books downtown, “but a lot of kids don’t leave Washington Heights.”
Abreu volunteered to work with Word-Up from its beginnings, when Veronica Liu, 33, first created it.
As a Washington Heights local, she co-founded Fractious Press, a community publisher and began volunteering for Seven Stories Institute, which brings books to underserved communities. Her own writing earned her a grant from the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance.*
The grant required her to stage a literary event. “I remember thinking, ‘I don’t even know where I could do a reading.’ I didn’t know who to do a reading with; I didn’t know where other writers in the neighborhood were.”
Eventually, with start-up funds from Seven Stories Institute and a co-sponsorship with the alliance, the plans for a temporary bookstore in Washington Heights came into place.*
“The mission,” said Abreu, “was to bring books to neighborhoods that don’t usually have access to books. Everybody knows how necessary it is to have a bookstore in their neighborhood. … But that is especially true in Washington Heights. They don’t actually realize how much they need books until they pick one up.”
The shop opened in June 2011, selling fiction and nonfiction in both Spanish and English. Early inventory started with consignments from publishing companies and local authors, but then expanded to include neighborhood donations.
Though sales fluctuated as the store transitioned from a pop-up to a long-term space, said Liu, the shop distributed about 200 books in an average week.
“It’s now mainly based on the donations that we get. We’ve gotten antique books from the 1800s to self-published local authors. Then there’s political books, history, art,” said Abreu. “You could literally buy a coloring book and at the same time buy Esquire magazine.”
There were also best-sellers such as Dan Brown (“The Da Vinci Code”) and Candace Bushnell (“Sex in the City”), new Spanish-language books that would appeal to the community and a variety of bilingual children’s books, including Spanish editions of the “Harry Potter” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series.
With volunteers, income from book sales and a community rallying for a lease extension, Word Up managed to stay in its first location for 15 months. In February, though, new owners bought the building. They initially honored Word Up’s short-term lease agreement so the shop could rent the space on a month-to-month basis. On July 2, after that lease ran out, the store got an eviction notice.
“A week later we had all these local petitions, and got an extension to the end of August,” Liu said. “Everyone was wanting to make sure that this thing kept going because there was nothing else like it.”
Although brick and mortar bookstores are becoming extinct, Liu said that the new wave of digital reading formats is not yet a reality in Washington Heights.
“You can’t worry about the future when the present isn’t even up to speed, when there hasn’t even been an acceptable bookstore for the 12-year-olds who could be potentially writing those next books,” said Liu.
Beyond bookselling, Word Up hosted events almost daily—everything from musical performances to meditation to open mic nights to literary readings, including an appearance from neighborhood resident Junot Diaz, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.”
When Gio Andollo, 28, a volunteer and musician, moved to New York from Florida a few years ago, he found a community in Washington Heights through Word Up.
“It’s great knowing there’s a venue where I can book shows, play shows, that is open to people of all ages,” he said.
Word Up’s inventory is now waiting in storage at the United Palace of Cultural Arts, which plans to collaborate with Word Up later this month for a local arts event.
Though Liu would like the shop to be up and running within a month, she said its reopening could be delayed into next year. But an interim pop-up is also possible.
“Out of all the requests that people threw at us, the one that was the biggest was, ‘How can you stay?’”
Clarification: The story originally didn’t make clear that Liu was a volunteer at Fractious Press and Seven Stories Institute.
Correction: The story originally stated that a Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance grant helped fund Word Up. It did not; Liu received the grant to write a novel.