A Novelist Writes Her Own Bookstore Fairy TaleWhen a beloved Brooklyn shop closed, Emma Straub faced the daunting task of replacing it. But then things went even better than planned
The birth of a new bookstore in Carroll Gardens reads like a fairy tale.
Once upon a time, Emma Straub and her husband Michael Fusco-Straub, both great book lovers, used to talk of how, if the owners of their beloved local bookstore were ever to retire, they would live their dream of taking over. The neighborhood outpost, BookCourt in Cobble Hill, had been in operation for 35 years. Straub had worked there years ago stocking shelves and running the register.
In 2016, the time had come. In a public statement, the BookCourt owners, Henry Zook and Mary Gannett, thanked their customers, their employees over the decades and the neighborhood children, announcing on Dec. 6 they would be closing on New Year’s Eve 2016. “We hope you’ll wish us well as we move on from what started as the dream of two 27-year-olds, and ended up exceeding all expectations, personally and professionally,” they wrote.
“What a shitty shitty loss,” author Junot Diaz wrote in an email posted on Twitter. Readers throughout the city spun out social-media lamentations, reminiscing about childhoods spent among the shelves, an in-store marriage proposal, a night in Harry Potter costume awaiting the seventh volume’s midnight release.
Straub was among the devastated since she had spent long hours weekly in the store’s stacks. Even while employed at BookCourt, she had launched her writerly career, which went on to include four books, three of them best-selling novels. In the most recent, Modern Lovers, published in May 2016, she demonstrated her affection by thanking “beloved independent bookstores.”
Proposing a Handoff
Straub had written to Zook and Gannett a few months earlier, when rumors began swirling, to see if she could take over the business. But Brooklyn had changed dramatically in the 35 years since her former employers first took a gamble on a rat-infested block, broken up by empty lots. Zook and Gannett would be selling the two-building property on Court Street for $13.6 million.
Even if the new owners would rent to Straub, a bookstore would be highly unlikely to sustain the retail rents on Court Street, which had increased by 236% since 2007. So all Straub could do at that moment was announce her intentions: “A neighborhood without an independent bookstore is a body without a heart. And so we’re building a new heart,” she wrote on her blog that same day as the Zook and Gannett announcement.
In other businesses, competition is not altogether welcome. But booksellers are a tribe, and many helpers rose to help Straub with the heart’s resuscitation. Not only did BookCourt share back years of tax returns with the Fusco-Straubs so they could better understand the business, but WORD bookstore, with locations in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and Jersey City, gave their friends hard numbers. So did Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstore, which has locations in Fort Greene and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “We are doing this as a love letter to BookCourt and the neighborhood and they know we are not coming for their customers,” explains Straub. “We are not trying to poach anybody’s business.”
On top of the friendly local assistance, Straub benefited from industry wisdom like the American Booksellers Association’s helpful guidance on what an aspiring shop owner might need to know, including a bookseller’s school. That industry boost seems to show gains on a national scale. Over the past several years, ABA has measured steady growth in independent bookstore locations as well as a lift in sales (including a 5% increase from 2015 to 2016).
Still, Straub plans on keeping projections low. “We were very modest about what we expect to make in the first years,” she says. “We would rather be wrong in that direction.” One of the key points of advice from ABA is “don’t pay more than 10% of your annual revenue on rent.” The Fusco-Straubs had just begun to look at rentals when they came across what they considered their perfect space on the corner of Smith and Butler streets. The rent was about half that of Court Street properties only a block away. “We knew as soon as we walked into it that we wanted it,” says Straub. “This space has light and character and isn’t just a rectangle.”
For funding they considered launching a community loan project, mirroring the one Greenlight had when opening its Prospect-Lefferts Gardens outpost. But then so many substantial backers contacted the Fusco-Straubs, unsolicited, they didn’t need to pursue that avenue.
The name, too, seemed kismet. “We had spent so much time trying to think of a more traditional, less whimsical name, but nothing made us happy,” Straub says. “‘Books Are Magic’ made us happy. So we are just going for it. That’s basically our entire business philosophy.”
In mid February, they signed the lease and received the keys.
But the key didn’t work.
Yet that too is a bit like a fairy tale.
Now, as they prepare for their hoped-for May opening, Straub has begun ordering books and planning events. Her graphic designer husband, who will make the store his full-time enterprise, plots out the logos for the store’s bags and works on staffing. Their three-and-a-half-year-old son, River, who “loves books more than anything” can’t wait; their one year old, Miles, probably can, but not for long. The store will be lined with BookCourt’s old shelves. Many people have written to offer help on finishing touches.
The only unexpected challenge? That it took so long to make their dream come true. In this fairy tale, receiving long-awaited lease paperwork comes right before “happily ever after.”