Spotlight On: Greenlight Bookstore, Brooklyn, NY
In honor of our 20th anniversary and our upcoming Annual Benefit and Auction on Tuesday, June 5, 2018, Reach Out and Read of Greater New York is turning the spotlight on local bookstores to champion their work in spreading the joy of books and a love of reading.
In the months leading up to June, we will profile the people and the businesses who give families the gift of reading.
We believe “every child deserves a story” and we are asking our community what that phrase means to them.
We also want to hear from you. What does “every child deserves a story” mean to YOU? Leave a comment below.
Greenlight Bookstore hugs the corner of South Portland and the very busy Fulton Street in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
The storefront is a vibrant green color with large bay windows that invites visitors away from the hustle of the city streets and into the comfort of their imaginations.
For nearly a decade, Greenlight Bookstore has brought authors, readers, book signings, children’s story times, and community members together.
They have partnered with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), St. Joseph’s College, and other local businesses and schools in the area.
The bookstore has been so successful that the two owners opened a second location in November 2016 in the Prospect Lefferts Garden neighborhood of Brooklyn.
At the helm are Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting. Each had previous stints as booksellers and publishing employees before making the decision to strike out and build a dream they both shared.
Reach Out and Read of Greater New York caught up with Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo to talk about books and reading.
ROR GNY: When did you first know that you wanted to own, open, and run a bookstore?
JSB: I think there were several different moments of epiphany. The clearest one was an evening when I was complaining to my then-boyfriend (now husband) about my failure to get into literature PhD programs and my misery in my publishing office job. He said simply, “The only job you’ve ever really loved was working in a bookstore,” and a lightbulb came on in my brain – bookstores were the work I wanted to do! It took a while to figure out how to make that a career – it took getting to know Brooklyn as well as intentionally working in different kinds of bookstores – but that was the beginning. I had always loved books, but I had been floundering trying to find my place in the world of books before then.
ROR GNY: When was the moment you realized that Greenlight Bookstore was going to be a reality?
JSB: This is part of the story involves Rebecca and I and the story behind our name. After I had written a business plan, after we had started “business dating” as potential business partners, there was a moment where our language shifted from “if we do this” to “when we do this.” It happened so naturally and then we noticed afterward that we were committed. Later, there was a moment where we had been discussing some obstacle we were facing, and one of us called the other and said, “We’ve got the green light.” That was a moment where we knew we could go forward, and it became one of the factors in choosing the name Greenlight Bookstore.
ROR GNY: What has been the most surprising aspect of running a business? Any aspects specific to running a bookstore in New York?
JSB: Both Rebecca and I had experience managing staff, but somehow it’s different when you’re responsible for someone’s salary – I think having employees has been one of the most surprising things. It’s a little like being a parent or a teacher, and comes with the same challenges of “letting go” and delegating responsibility when it’s time. New York surprises us with the passion, intelligence, and diversity of its readers, always. I notice it most when we’re at conferences with booksellers from other parts of the country – our customers are leading us out in front of some of the national conversations about accessibility and visibility, lifting up the voices of people of color, women, and LGBTQ people. Our customers surprise us in all the best ways, and by the fact that there are always more of them!
ROR GNY: What were your favorite books as children (teen years included)?
JSB: Oooh… one of the centerpieces of my early reading was the Anne of Greene Gables series – I read the whole thing every summer in my early teens. I reread it recently and like different things about it than I did then. I loved Tolkien and the Chronicles of Narnia – great quest narratives – and an odd little book called Rabbit Hill, which is kind of about an anarchist utopia of animals and humans where no one goes hungry. The Saturdays and its sequels by Elizabeth Enright – I loved the Melendy family like my own. Miss Rumphius was probably the book that most influenced me; her insistence that “you must do something to make the world more beautiful” is one of the reasons I return to for opening a bookstore.
ROR GNY: Did you have a favorite place/spot in your home or hometown where you liked to go and read as a kid?
JSB: I was homeschooled as a kid, which meant a lot of freedom for self-education, which mostly meant reading. I can think of an armchair in the house where I grew up where I read through the encyclopedias. But everywhere was somewhere to read.
ROR GNY: What are your favorite children’s book titles currently?
JSB: Another fun question! My daughter is 6 now so I get to discover more all the time. I love the picture books How Do You Wokka Wokka by Elizabeth Bluemle, All the World by Liz Garton Scanlon, Brontorina by Kevin Henkes, A House in the Woods by Inga Moore, Journey and Quest by Aaron Becker among many others. All of these books have expanded my world, and I love to give them to kids and parents and watch the expansion begin. I also love the Princess in Black series and the Mercy Watson series as my daughter is starting to read short chapter books on her own, though I hope we don’t leave picture books behind for a while.
ROR GNY: What are some of your favorite adult titles currently?
JSB: This year, or in my all-time pantheon? Let’s say the first. My favorite books of the last year include: The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, Shadowshaper and its sequel by Daniel Jose Older, The Changeling by Victor LaValle, and White Tears by Hari Kunzru. I also discovered Ursula K. Le Guin in the last couple of years, so The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darknesshave taken up a lot of my thoughts recently, along with the Earthsea books and I’ve read her recent essay collections too,which means I learned to love her in time to grieve her passing.
ROR GNY: What is one piece of practical advice you would give someone wanting to start a business?
JSB: How about two? Listen all you can – to those who are doing the work you want to do, to industry experts, to business librarians, to your neighbors, to your potential customers. And talk all you can – tell everyone you meet about your dream and what you are doing to make it happen, because you never know who might be the person to help you make it come true.
ROR GNY: Our theme this year is every child deserves a story. How do you interpret that phrase?
JSB: Wonderful. I recently got to watch a speech Junot Diaz gave to a group of booksellers – about how he was lucky to learn to love books as a child but the lack of characters like himself reinforced the racism he encountered, and about his recurring dream that he has just found a book by a favorite author that is all about HIM, but he always tragically wakes up before he gets to read it. I think that every child deserves to find themselves in a story that expands their world – that all of us who work in books can help children find stories that can help them understand – and create – the narratives of their own lives.
Parents and caretakers! Greenlight Bookstore has story times and reading groups for your little ones and pre-teens:
Story Time (ages 3-8)
Saturday, 11:30AM in Fort Greene
Sunday, 1:30PM in Prospect Lefferts Gardens
Greenlight Young Readers Book Group (ages 9-12)
Fourth Tuesday of each month at 5:30PM in Fort Greene
Fourth Wednesday of each month at 5:30PM in Prospect Lefferts Gardens
You can visit Greenlight Bookstore’s website for information about upcoming readings, events, and book groups for adults.