The Cut is asking readers to share what they’re doing with their money — or the lack of it — in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. This week is Noëlle Santos, the owner of The Lit. Bar, the only independent bookshop in the Bronx. She spoke about being forced to close down her storefront only ten months after its opening due to the coronavirus, and how she prepared her business for unrest in the community.
In terms of supporting myself, I’m a hustler, so I’m fine. I conceptualized the Lit. Bar in October of 2014, and it started off as a pop-up shop. I crowdfunded $200,000 on Indiegogo, so I haven’t had to put any of my personal money into it. I also had a job [in human resources] right up until construction on the store started in March of 2018, so I had four years to save up, and those savings sustained me through the next two years. I don’t have dependents, and I don’t have a high cost of living. I still drive the same car from 2012. Now my source of income is speaking engagements and media opportunities. I’ve done some commercials. It’s not steady, but it’s enough that I’m not on the Lit. Bar’s payroll.
Thank goodness I haven’t had kids yet. It’s a blessing because I’m only responsible for myself and my business and my team, when so many other people are responsible for all of those things plus the lives of their dependents. But it’s also a burden because I’ve been quarantined by myself for three months, and that takes a serious emotional toll. While I don’t have kids, there are members of my team who do, and I consider them like my own. And all of us are black women, so on top of all of the stresses of the coronavirus, we’re trying to make sure that we’re safe in our bodies.
When I got a message that there were plans for riots in the area the first thing I thought of was the store. So we boarded up our windows, hid electronics, and prayed. It was the first time I’d seen my team in months — I’m tearing up just thinking about it. We’re not even supposed to be in the store together right now, because we’re technically a nonessential business. We all wore PPE, but we broke the rules to secure our storefront. I didn’t even know who to call about boarding things up — I had to ask a restaurant down the block that survived Hurricane Sandy.
We closed our doors a day before New York City mandated us to do so because I couldn’t manage social distancing. There was so much conflicting information about the virus that I was just like, “Shut it down.” I have six people on my team, and now they’re all furloughed. I was sad to let them go, but I knew they’d be better off if they could benefit from the unemployment stimulus. To keep up sales, I partnered with a third-party company called Bookshop.org that works with independent bookstores, and they’ve been managing all of our fulfillment and customer service online. I’ve continued to handle all of our marketing myself.
Our sales are definitely down since this all started, but we are in a position to reopen and come back strong. I reached out to large organizations to see how we could support them with our books, and we’ve gotten a lot of B2B orders that way. LinkedIn started a Black Book Club to help their POC members cope with — I don’t even know what to call it, the apocalypse? — and they ordered hundreds of copies of The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health. I also have a section in my store called Dear White People, and when all this racial tension erupted, I put that book list online and it went viral. We’ve made enough sales to weather the coronavirus, I think. Now we just have to make it through whatever comes next.
I’ve been coming into the store pretty much every day lately, putting together gift boxes that people have ordered for recent graduates, and for Teachers Appreciation Day. I’m packing up everything myself because I’m only allowed to be here alone. We’re a nonessential business, which is crazy, because I can legally sell wine in broad daylight but I have to slide books through a back alley. Normally we do sell wine to customers, but I haven’t been. I’m not going to sell wine from the only bookstore in the Bronx and continue to perpetuate that message that liquor is essential but books are not. I don’t want any part of that.
I’m very fortunate to have a landlord who called me to say, “You don’t have to worry about eviction. We can’t afford to give you an abatement, but we will work with you.” That doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility of rent, but not having that immediate stress has allowed me to put all of my resources, and my mental and emotional bandwidth, toward making sure that there’s something for my team to come back to once we’re on the other side of this.
I was one of the few businesses in the Bronx to receive PPP funds. I do have some survivor’s guilt about that, though, because I do some media work for Chase bank, and those connections helped me. If you go to Chase’s website, you’ll find my picture on the home page. I have a business relationship manager and team who I can call there, and they’ll check in on my application. But if you’re not a high-profile business, or if English is not your first language, then these programs are basically not accessible. As soon as I observed those holes in the system, I did whatever I could do to support my neighbors. I got on phone calls with them and tried to help answer questions about the process or connect them to people who could. I’m on the mayor’s Small Business Sector Advisory Council, and my intent is to do everything I can to make sure that my community isn’t invisible. But I’m not holding my breath. History shows that any resources that the city and state receives do not trickle down to the Bronx.
The PPP loan itself is for $17,777, and it’s still sitting there because I’m not yet allowed to legally reopen and incur payroll expenses. I have never taken on debt for my business before. So I haven’t touched it, and I won’t until I get some further guidance. And in terms of expenses, that amount is a drop in the bucket. It doesn’t even cover my rent for the period that I’ve been closed. I also won a $5,000 grant from Bumble, the dating app. I’m going to use it to put out whatever fire comes up first.
For the first few weeks of the pandemic, I was paralyzed. I didn’t do anything. And then I got up, and my next step was to engage social media because that’s how I got here. The way I’ve built up such a big following and community was by showing up and being transparent and telling people what I’m going through. Having that emotional support really empowered me. It’s in my nature to work my pain away. If I didn’t have to come board up my store right now, I’d probably be curled up in a ball at home. Each week looks different. Some weeks I’m super productive and inspired, but last week I was back at square one, just paralyzed again. I just allow myself to feel my feelings. And when I am up, and my adrenaline is going, I maximize that.
I’m not out of the woods yet, as far as my bank account. But I’m not worried about it, because the Bronx is not going to let this bookstore close. My larger concern is that no matter how fast I run, or how agile and creative I am, if my industry is affected, my supply chain is affected too. We can’t all be out here just for ourselves. Like, maybe I got my PPP loan, but I have to make sure my neighbor gets a PPP too — not just in the name of humanity, but also because that affects my foot traffic. For my store to make it, my block has to survive. And if other independent bookstores close, who’s going to keep paying the membership dues to support our only trade association? If publishing exists only for Amazon, then there’s no infrastructure for stores like the Lit. Bar.
We’re technically allowed to open for curbside pickup on June 8. But we’re a destination place, so curbside business isn’t really viable. And once I turn on the store in any capacity, all of my expenses start back up — my dishwasher, my garbage pickup, my lights, my air. Profit margins on book sales are so slim already. Our [wholesale] discount on books is anywhere from 32 to 46 percent, and out of that small discount you have to pay your operating expenses. So we have to wait for Phase 2, which doesn’t have a date yet. If everything goes well, it could be in a few weeks. But I don’t anticipate that, because everybody’s outside protesting, and our community is where all the essential workers are, and where the protesters live, because we’re a community of color. So, I don’t know.
The Lit. Bar was a labor of grief. I was coming out of a breakup, and this business was born during that time because I was channeling all of my anger into work. And this is hell right now, but something beautiful is going to be born out of this trauma. And I keep saying, “You can’t tell me nothing after this.” It’s going to make for a better memoir than I ever imagined.