Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Comment: Brooklyn & Its Discontents

Amidst the post-primary news in the New York Region section of the Times today, there's a witty and bitter little article by Sara Gran about the downside of the Brooklyn literary scene.

I live most of the year in the South now. But I come back to Brooklyn often, and when I do, I stay with my parents in Park Slope because I can’t afford to stay elsewhere. I love Mother and Dad, but I would prefer to stay anywhere else. Park Slope is a neighborhood almost exclusively populated by writers; to be specific, writers who are better than I am, are more well known than I am and sell more books than I do.

I sympathize. Her description of being a writer born in Brooklyn reminds me of the church I grew up in. Even though I'd been going there literally since before I was born, I wasn't one of the cool kids in the youth group, and no one ever seemed to notice or remember me. People were always kindly introducing themselves, when I'd been seeing them in the same room for years.

Gran mentions BEA and the ABA's Hotel Brooklyn, as well as the Brooklyn Book Festival, but with a tone of wry resignation to becoming all the more invisible as everyone realizes how many swanky writers make their home in Brooklyn, and the literary cachet the borough carries. My favorite bit is her impression of the thoughts of a young M.F.A. dreaming of moving to Brooklyn:

I’ll play poker with Jennifer Egan, our neophyte imagines. David Grand will drop by for coffee. I can write lyrics for One Ring Zero, the Brooklyn-based band with lyrics written by Brooklyn-based writers. I’ll get a desk at the Brooklyn Writers Space, read my work at the bars on Fifth Avenue, and if I need a job — on that one-in-a-million chance that my writing doesn’t make me rich — hey, there are about 50 bookstores on Seventh Avenue. That’d be a fun job!

Funny, though, I disagree with her representation of bookstore on 7th Avenue. On that street there are about 2 used bookstores, 1 tiny indie, a Barnes & Noble, and a comic book and baseball store -- none of them well known as a literary mecca. There are vast stretches of even affluent Brooklyn neighborhoods without a single bookstore. And I was just talking to a Brooklyn bookseller the other day about how this most literary of boroughs is woefully under-served by bookstores.

But even though I'm eager to jump into that gap, I admit there's an intimidation factor in trying to stake out my literary territory in Brooklyn. Will I be cool enough for the cool kids? And maybe more importantly, will I be unpretentious enough for the folks who have been there all along?

It's a challenge in opening a bookstore, and in trying to make a community: wanting to gather like-minded folks, even notably talented and well-known folks, but not alienating those who aren't as "literary" or "trendy." I think maybe it's a little easier to do this as a bookstore than as a writer or editor, since we depend on our neighborhood regulars, not on our nationwide prestige, to stay afloat. But not by much.

I love McSweeney's (mostly), I read Jonathan Lethem and Paul Auster and Jonathan Safran Foer, I'm crazy about Soft Skull and Akashic Books. I admit I want my store to be a destination spot for big-name author events and a rich literary culture.

But I think it's even more important to become a neighborhood gathering place -- an unintimidating place for people who love books, who recognize each other, no matter whether their name has appeared in the New York Times.

The fact that both can dwell side by side is one of the reason I love my borough, and my line of work.