It’s the best day of the week again, folks! That’s right, it’s bookspot time. This week, we spoke to Vina Castillo and Holly Nikodem, co-owners of the wonderful Kew and Willow Books. Located in Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, theirs is a stunning independent bookstore. Complete with (pre-lockdown) signings, hand-picked content, and a gorgeous, welcoming interior, Kew and Willow should be the first on your list for a weekend peruse (or on a weekday – we won’t tell your boss!)
How did your bookstore transition from concept to reality?
The idea for the bookshop started on New Year’s Eve 2015 into 2016 when the last Barnes and Noble in Queens, NY, closed, leaving the borough with one non-specialized independent bookstore. Vina suggested opening a bookshop to fill the void. From there, it was a year of handing out fliers in front of the old Barnes and Noble to build a mailing list, partnering with local cafes and flea markets to sell wrapped “Blind Date” books and handmade journals, doing stoytimes in various parks to help build a community, perfecting a business plan and finding just the right location for the shop. With the help of a two-month long Kickstarter campaign to help crowdfund the opening, Kew and Willow Books opened in October of 2017.
What do you feel is unique to your bookstore?
Every indie bookstore is unique for who runs it and builds the vibe and brand, so honestly… Between the inventory that we curate to the aesthetic of the space to the connections that we build with our customers, the most unique thing about Kew and Willow is the team that made it a reality. That and the beautiful mural painted by Caldecott Honoree author/illustrator David Ezra Stein. It displays the names of the children of some of our Kickstarter supporters.
If you had infinite space, what might you add to the store?
Pre-Covid lockdowns we would have said we’d love a dedicated event space… now we might just settle for more floorspace for some cute sideline displays!
How do you feel your bookstore fits into your local community?
We tend to curate our shelves with our customers in mind. We know we have a strong thriller/mystery base, so we pay special attention to authors that fit the genre. We have a lot of families in the neighborhood, so we make sure to have a very engaging children’s selection. Queens is full of poets and authors, so we offer a monthly Poetry Open Mic and designated shelf space to display their talents.
What does your store offer that a chain or online retailer can’t?
Our love and passion for books are the driving force behind our curated selection of books. We give attention to the needs, at times even quirky, of our customer base. A bookstore offers an experience that cannot be replicated and fosters a sense of community and friendship with its customers. We’ve witnessed readers bond during author events, and friendships forming during storytime.
Do you hand-pick your staff to create a specific environment?
The shop is operated by both of us, so we do not have a staff.
How else do you create a welcoming environment?
We make an effort to know our customers’ names, what they’ve read, how they are doing outside of the shop. Being small provides us the opportunity to show a personal, often individualized investment in our customers. Even for first or one time customers, we greet everyone warmly and take the time to either help them figure out exactly what they are looking for, or allow them the space to explore the shop on their own. We also make it a point, through our window displays, book choices and social media presence, to promote the causes we feel are important and uplift as many diverse voices as possible. We work to provide people with a safe space.
What about your store do you think appeals to your neighborhood?
Before lockdowns the bookshop was often a Third Place for people to unwind, talk books, sit and read to their children, meet local authors, get some extra work done, meet new friends at Game Night. Post lockdowns, now that we need to limit how many people are in the shop at once, the neighborhood still looks forward to booking their browsing appointments as welcome pockets of normalcy in an increasingly unrecognizable world.
Do you have any staff picks or releases we should watch out for?
Later on this month, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik will be coming out. Highly recommend it for anyone who grew up reading Harry Potter. Also, can’t wait to read The Midnight Library by Matt Haig and, as huge fans of V. E. Schwab – she has a new standalone coming out in October!
As for 2021, it will be a great year for books (and hopefully for the rest of the world too!).
New novels will be released by giants we love such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Haruki Murakami.
Do you tailor your inventory according to your community?
Absolutely. We do our research to ensure we are promoting diverse voices that reflect our surrounding neighborhoods. We listen to the book requests our customers have and build an inventory that will appeal to them, and we make the effort to recognize and promote local Queens authors.
Is there anything else that you’d like our audience to know?
Right now independent bookstores appreciate your support and patience more than you’ll ever know. We know you know we’ll never be able to match online prices or turnaround times, but the fact that you are willing to invest in a physical space and face to face relationships in addition to books, is really priceless.
What’s your favorite book?
Holly: Right now, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab.
Vina: It’s a tie between Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
Feature image via Ken and Willow