A bookstore is a place of community and learning. For this bookstore, their belief is that art, books, and a supportive community is what change lives for the better. For this week’s bookspot, we interviewed Carolina Valencia, Assistant General Coordinator of Word Up Community Bookshop Librería Comunitaria.
How did your bookstore transition from concept to reality?
Nearly 10 years ago (!!!), we came together to co-create a bookstore. When we first opened the doors to Word Up in June 2011, it was an empty storefront bearing the awning of a pharmacy. As a pop-up shop, we had just one month to dream and execute what could be.
Some of us came into the fold as volunteers, ready for anything. Some of us walked in and hung art on the blank walls, while some came prepared to make art on the spot. Some of us brought furniture, while others unloaded and arranged it by the dying light at dusk before we had electricity. Then, when a few bookshelves were in place, we unpacked the boxes that had already arrived, while you streamed in with books to place on the shelves.
We had this space thanks to the advocacy of Sandra Garcia-Betancourt of NoMAA and Raquel Batista. At the grand opening—barely 4 days after getting the keys—speeches by Sandra, Raquel, and Veronica, and performances by Mary Ely Peña-Gratereaux, Elizabeth Balaguer, Roberto Bello, Osiris Mosquea, Sandy Jimenez, Seth Tobocman, and Rebecca Migdal (w/ Eric Blitz & Andy Laties), inaugurated what more was to come.
We had a month-long calendar of events already booked, and when we posted it on the wall, you wrote in more events, your own readings and meetups, squeezed into the cracks of the schedule. That first month, we were open 5 hours a day and sometimes would have 3 different events, all packed with different audiences!
No one wanted it to end. We got an extension: the end of September was our new deadline.
The volunteers who stuck around morphed into founding collective members. We had a lot of meetings. We made a Big Picture Committee. We got another extension till the end of November. We had a rent party. We made plans to be around for a long time . . .
What do you feel is unique to your bookstore?
Word Up is run by and with community neighbors that collectively make decisions and use their resources when needed. With literature and art in mind, the goal is to enrich each other’s lives through books, sharing space, and making art together.
Our mission is as following: Word Up is a multilingual, general-interest community bookshop and arts space in Washington Heights, New York City, committed to preserving and building a neighborhood in which all residents help each other to live better informed and more expressive lives, using books as an instrument of reciprocal education and exchange, empowering not only themselves, but their community.
If you had infinite space, what might you add to the store?
It has been an ongoing conversation at every yearly summit we have with our collective! Some recurring ideas are a micropress, cafe, theater with a stage for events, gallery/classroom, more bookshelves for used & new books, and an expanded Spanish section.
What does your store offer that a chain or online retailer can’t?
The volunteers and staff members are our main asset, providing knowledge, not only about books, but from their unique backgrounds in and out of the community. We also have relationships with small presses — and offer unique books — and with community organizations. With access in mind, the majority of our books are used and are at a low price point (pay-what-you-can to $5), and we uphold a Safe Space Policy for all coming inside Word Up’s spaces, in-person and online.
Do you hand-pick your staff to create a specific environment?
Word Up is run mostly by volunteers and few staff members that are all collective members. Volunteers go through a training period and must agree to our core values that we’ve set up as a collective, including our Safe Space policy and a Code of Conduct. But no previous bookseller knowledge is needed!
How else do you create a welcoming environment?
Our common space is for everyone to use, from needing a place to sit and charge your phone to hosting rehearsals for the local performance of the Vagina Monologues. We also host a collective book club and discussion space for members to read literature and actively discuss issues that affect our worlds.
Do you have any staff picks or releases we should watch out for?
Dominicana (en español) by Angie Cruz & translated by Kianny Antigua was pushed by our founder and general coordinator Veronica Liu who helped negotiate the book at Seven Stories Press. The English version was our inaugural pick for the first edition of Uptown Reads, a neighborhood-wide program that celebrates great literature and the community-wide reflection that can come of a shared reading experience. Also, the story takes place down the street from Word Up and Angie Cruz is a local resident!
Do you tailor your inventory according to your community?
We try to have books on our shelves that reflect our community members and what they want to read. We are a bilingual bookstore.
You can find Word Up Community Bookshop Librería Comunitaria at:
2113 Amsterdam Ave. @ 165th Street, Washington Heights, NYC
If you’re near, make sure to stop by and show your love and support! For more bookspots, take a look at our last featured bookstore here.