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Four years ago, outraged that Barnes & Noble was closing their only outpost in the Bronx, Noëlle Santos launched a viral crowdfunding campaign to open an indie bookstore/wine bar in the borough where she was raised. “We are worthy, we are more than just sneaker stores and we support the arts, so I stand here today and ask you to open your hearts and help us show the world what many fail to see, that the Bronx is no longer burning, except with a desire to read,” Santos rapped in her Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign while standing in front of graffiti art wearing a Read Or Else sweatshirt. She asked for $100,000, and raised $170,000.
From the start, The Lit. Bar was about so much more than a bookstore. Santos was upset that a community of over 1.5 million people and 10 colleges in the literary capital of the world did not have its own literary hub. “You can’t tell me that’s not systemic,” says Santos. “That creates outrage in itself.”
Although she had never set foot in an independent bookstore, Santos was a passionate reader and saw the lack of a bookstore in the Bronx as a cause worth fighting for. She initially hoped to outsource the project, but soon realized if the Lit. Bar was going to be a reality, she would eventually have to leave her Human Resources job and do it herself. With the Lit. Bar, Santos hoped to be a model of a local businesswoman succeeding at a time when outside developers are reshaping the South Bronx. “It is important for my community to see young, black, and female local entrepreneurs as part of the work that is being done here,” she says.
Now, after four years of dreaming, raising money, adventures in real estate, construction, networking, research, inventory, social media posting, hiring and non-stop hustle, Santos’ dream of opening an independent book store in the Bronx is finally a reality. On a vibrant stretch of Alexander Avenue, The Lit. Bar will be launching a soft opening later this month.
In the happy space designed by Santos reading never looked so cool. Local artist Andre Trenier did two stunning murals including an oversized image of Santos’ younger sister reading. Verde Flowers helped her install a magical double-height tree in the children’s nook. Tall bookshelves are accessed by a library ladder inspired by Beauty and the Beast. Cozy red velvet armchairs and marble-topped tables provide seating at the wine bar which is lined with book spines.“It so important to me that the space reflects the community and my personality.”
Here, Santos shares her crowdfunding journey and advice for launching a standout campaign.
Bliss: Where did you get the idea to crowdfund your bookstore?
Santos:I reluctantly crowdfunded because I thought it was so tacky to be a for-profit business begging for money. My community pushed me to do it and I needed to get my ego in check or else the project just wouldn’t happen. I interviewed two other bookstores that have successfully crowdfunded including Greenlight Bookstorein Brooklyn and Word Up Community Bookshop. Those are places I volunteered at before and the owners have become friends and mentors. They shared their experience and I took the parts that worked for me and freestyled the rest.
Bliss: Why do you think your crowdfunding campaign went viral?
Santos:The campaign was very unique. It was controversial because the name of the campaign was Let’s Bring a Goddamn Bookstore to the Bronx. I wanted people to know, right off the bat what type of bookstore this was going to be and to get a sense of my personality. I wanted people to understand how angry I was. I wrote that poem myself. It was the first poem I have ever written in my life. I’m from the Bronx so rap is in my blood. Poetry, rap, hip hop—it is all the same thing.
Bliss: It has been a four year process, what has motivated you?
Santos: The support from my community is what keeps me going from day to day. Otherwise, I’d give up all the time. But I can’t, because this is not about me anymore. I am building this for my community and everyone looking to me for leadership and inspiration. I get the most heartfelt letters that give me the confidence to push forward.
Bliss: What advice would you give to someone launching a business with crowd-funding?
Santos: Here are my tips:
- Choose the right funding model. I mentor a lot of people who want to crowdfund their businesses. They sometimes think they are going to copy and paste my website and that it’s going to work for them, but before you launch and you need to get real. What value is your business giving the people that you are asking money from? Not everything is crowdfundable. If it is something innovative, or if you are solving a problem, or if you have a strong social mission—then you are good.
- Hone your mission: When you have a mission that is larger than you, that helps connect people to what you are doing. There are a lot of dynamics that are attracting people to The Lit. Bar. I am opening the only bookstore in a community of over 1.4M people and 10 colleges, and I live in the literary capital of the world—you can’t tell me that’s not systemic. That creates outrage in itself.
- Be relatable. It’s important for the audience to connect with the people behind the project, so I put myself out there. This area is gentrifying and it was important for me to be right in the heart of the action, so we can have a seat at the table, so that brown people have a voice. It gives us a sense of hope, because we feel powerless when see the developers come in and building in our neighborhood. I am from the Bronx, born and raised. It is important for my community to see young, black, and female local entrepreneurs as part of the work that is being done here.
- Build your audience before you ask for money.I was blogging about my journey from the beginning. I was doing community events and collecting emails for almost two years. I was very active on social media, getting people riled up before I asked for a dollar. My crowd-funding was over before it started. I had an email list of 5000 people before I even launched.
- Ask for more. Everything will cost more than you think, so ask for more. Get quotes as if you were building the business in that moment. Ask contractors, landlords, and anyone that will be involved in your business and ask about the costs. When I did my crowdfunding campaign I listed how much it costs to open a book hub. I got my estimates from research for things like construction, furniture, and inventory.
- Be transparent. Being transparent about the challenges I faced with real estate, construction served me well. My community was not only understanding but supported me with encouragement, referrals, in-kind labor and services–even food! People were scouting locations for me. Accountants offered to help at no cost. I would put out calls to action when I needed it.
March 8, 2019 at 10:09AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs