Name a better duo than a good book and a glass of wine. Well, that’s what you will find at The Lit. Bar, a multifaceted experience offering customers a bookstore, a wine bar, and a community center. Founded by Noëlle Santos, the Lit. Bar is the only indie bookstore in the Bronx. She brought this vision to life for her community to nerd out and socialize after saving the last standing bookstore in the borough from being shut down. As the #InTheBlack business feature of the week, we sat down with Santos to talk about how she has been able to keep The Lit. Bar alive, her love for her community, and how customers have provided support for her new business.
Tell us the story of why you started this business.
Santos: This was not at all in the cards for me. I started off as an activist, [in 2014 I was trying] to save the last bookstore in the Bronx from closing in a community of 1.4 million people and 10 colleges. I decided that somebody’s gotta do it. So, I was going to be the one to learn this foreign industry, figure it out, and bring a bookstore to the Bronx.
The Lit. Bar is a 1,700-square-foot location that is 75 percent bookstore and 25 percent wine bar. It’s one big open space for people to have a drink, or some charcuterie and coffee [while] the entire floor is just filled with books. We focus on people of color, which represents the community that we operate in, and a lot of our titles and [main genre] is social sciences.
How has your city influenced you as an entrepreneur?
Santos: My community is everything to me, I lit my life on fire to make this happen. Before The Lit. Bar, I was doing exactly what I studied in school, which almost never happens. I had a different picture for my life, but this project was so much bigger than me and I left my career that I loved [to pursue it]. I sacrificed a lot so that I can bring this bookstore here, and my community is my inspiration everyday. Especially when it’s hard, especially this decade that has been 2020. My community is my ‘why’– the way people have been inspired by me, inspires me. Just seeing my community’s resilience; it just shows me every day that my community is worth it.
How have you been able to connect with customers and drum up support for your business?
Santos: Going back to 2020 being a long decade, the world is being a lot more conscious about not only what they read, but where they buy their books from. When people use Google to search for Black-owned bookstores [in the Bronx], we come up. There’s not a lot of us in New York City. There’s not a lot of us in the nation. Google has allowed our customers, who know what they’re looking for, to connect with us [and] find resources. We’ve seen the demographics of our customer base really shift and open us up to new markets in 2020.
We use our business profile on Google to communicate [our business hours]. Due to COVID, one day we could be closed, [the next day] we could be at 75 percent capacity, and then the next day we’d have to go down to 25 percent capacity. That was invaluable because it was changing from day-to-day.
We love reading our Google reviews. Our most common review is how clean our bathrooms are. We're notorious for our bathrooms and it brings a sense of pride. [Google reviews] give people who are not familiar with us a window to build rapport and trust with our business, because you know it’s the place to be. Everybody is having a good time and we’re able to really showcase that through our business profile on Google.
Can you talk about the resiliency of your business and how you were able to successfully pivot despite the impact from COVID-19?
Santos: I’m a hustler. That’s basically what it comes down to. My mantra is, ‘nobody cares, work harder.’ [My main] focus was to pivot and change my business model [to introduce] e-commerce. We never had e-commerce before the shutdown, but it was always on our list of things to do. We were only 10 months old before COVID. We were this baby business, just trying to get our feet wet and the rug was kind of pulled out from underneath us. We launched e-commerce within 24 hours of being shut down and thanks to [the community searching for Black-owned bookstores], that has continued to blossom.
It’s been a whirlwind, but now I’m in the position where I can help the rest of my community, who's still not getting the resources that we need from our leadership. New York City was the epicenter of COVID and then the Bronx is the epicenter of the epicenter, so our success is atypical and we’re an anomaly. We still have a lot of work to do and a lot of support to give to these families out here.
How has your business benefited from the surge in customers seeking ways to support Black-owned businesses?
Santos: There’s so much awareness with #buylocal, it’s turned from a hashtag into an actual mantra. I think the world, in general, has become more aware of how dollars flow from our community, [and what that means for Black culture]. Not only are we keeping our dollars within our community, but it’s the impact that we’re able to have with that. I operate in the poorest congressional district of the United States and we’re a multi-million dollar business. That’s why I’m so grateful for being able to tell this story. I hope people read it and understand that we are not powerless, and just watching us operate and continue to thrive is giving a lot of people hope. It’s important for Black people, for Brown people, and people of the Bronx to see that there’s still life after all of this and there are reasons to keep fighting another day.
Moving forward, how can customers best support your business?
Santos: People can find out more about our products and services directly from our business profile on Google. Leaving a review or sharing a photo from your visit to the store helps support us and build engagement. The amount of effort we put in is the effort that we get back and it only increases our presence.
And there you have it, a thriving bookstore in the middle of the Bronx. The Lit. Bar stands true to its name literally and physically, providing a safe space for the community to flourish and enjoy literature and drinks. The bookstore offers the perfect, serene vibes to lift your spirits up during this pandemic. Learn more by visiting The Lit. Bar’s business profile on Google.Remember to support businesses in your own community to stay #InTheBlack.
This editorial was brought to you in partnership with Google.