Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Reflections: Whaddaya Mean, Brooklyn?

It's always risky to put your dreams out where people can see them. Some of the responses I've had, in comments and emails, to my posts about my "ideal Brooklyn bookstore" have caused me to rethink – or at least think through – a few of my assumptions. One of those, of course, is that adjective "Brooklyn." What do I mean by that, people want to know? It's a big place, after all – how could a bookstore possibly reflect all or any of what is meant by Brooklyn?

First of all, I had to remind myself of what I already know, and have already said, in places like the Litminds interview I did a few weeks back. Brooklyn – like New York as a whole – is a city of neighborhoods, and each of them has its own distinct character. Those neighborhoods encompass an almost unfathomable range – from the Russian store signs in Bensonhurst, to the painfully hip bars of Williamsburg, to the posh baby strollers of Park Slope, to the West Indian restaurants of Crown Heights, to the urban farms of East New York, with a thousand variations in between.

No one store could hope to serve the borough in its entirety. And any bookstore worth its salt, in any town or borough, will evolve into a place that reflects its very specific environment. I don't know yet where I'll find the right space for my bookstore. A Fort Greene store should evolve based on the proximity of Fort Greene Park, the history of Walt Whitman and Richard Wright and Spike Lee. A store in South Park Slope should serve younger families, Spanish speakers, riders of the F train. There are probably as many "Brooklyn bookstores" as there are Brooklyn addresses. Like BookCourt, Vox Pop, Word, and other great Brooklyn bookstores, it will be vital for my store to become a part of its neighborhood, and that identity will have to evolve as I get to know my street and my customers.

But I do also feel that there is a broader Brooklyn sensibility – something endemic to the borough that appeals to me deeply. It shows up in the old Dutch motto " Een Draght Mackt Maght": "In Unity There Is Strength". It's in the borough's nicknames "Land of Homes and Churches," or "America's Hometown". More so than Manhattan, it seems like a place to put down roots, to find and make communities, to invest in the land and the people where you live. Maybe it's something about the architecture – brownstones vs. skyscrapers, for the most part – but it seems like a city on a more human scale, where relationships are the fabric of daily life rather than something to make time for between workdays, where your efforts will be judged not by a dispassionate media but by those who live next door to you. It seems like a place where there's a little more margin for error and craziness, as long as you act in good faith. It's the adopted home of creative eccentrics like Walt Whitman and Marianne Moore. I think the abundance of writers, creators, designers, musicians and others coming out of Brooklyn reflects that: an urban environment that's a little off to the side, with room to grow. In his epigraph for the forthcoming photo/essay book The Brooklynites, quintessential Brooklyn writer Jonathan Lethem offers this definition:

“Brooklyn is the conscience of New York. While Manhattan tears everything down and changes everything, Brooklyn does a similar thing, but fails miserably at it. It is a crazy quilt of a place. A mongrel place of sorts. It mixes old and modern in a haphazard way. It represents a tiny microcosm of the world—a functional utopia.”

Brooklynites, both natives and those who moved here from elsewhere, are often incredibly passionate about where they live. It shows up in their willingness to engage with local issues like the Atlantic Yards project. It shows up in fierce, joyfully irrational neighborhood loyalties – how do you think Neighborhoodies got so successful? But it shows up sometimes in a sort of shamed defensiveness about the changes happening in the borough – about the fact that Brooklyn's cultural vitality can sometimes mean development that pushes out those without money to spend. Just look at the Brooklynian boards sometime for a sampling of the names those tech-savvy Brooklynites are calling each other: yuppie, gentrifier, scared white liberal. In a place with so much diversity, where the breath of fresh creative juices often means the potential for commercial exploitation, tensions are bound to exist, along with some jockeying for authenticity. It can be a challenge to navigate that. Call me na├»ve, but I think generally not being jerks to each other is a good place to start. Good, strong communities are more likely to grow from welcoming everyone and allowing them to try to learn from each other than from trying to weed out the inauthentic.

It's a big ambition, but I want my bookstore to be a place where that can happen. I want to straddle some of the fault lines in Brooklyn culture and be one of the places where community gets made. I want to serve and grow with the neighborhood where I live and work, and I want to be a destination for readers throughout the city who are drawn to this creative vibe. I want to reflect the borough's traditions, but I also want to make something new. I can't know exactly what that will be until I know where it is, and there are a lot of steps between here and there. But here is where I want to start.

(And life is a funny thing. I may not even live in Brooklyn five years from now. If the ALP, say, got a job in Boston, I'd choose the man I love over the town I love. And I'd learn to fall in love with another town, with its own deep-rooted identity and sprouting creations.)

But I feel like I've still got a lot to learn about Brooklyn. Honestly, I haven't been here all that long, and as Thomas Wolfe famously implied, it could take more than a lifetime to get to know the place. So I've started a new project to gather some of the thoughts and impressions of other book people in Brooklyn, and find out what's happening in the literary and cultural life of the borough. I'm calling it Brooklyn Lit Life – a series of interviews with authors, publishers, retailers, critics, readers, bloggers, and other literary folks based in Brooklyn, with some big open-ended questions about Brooklyn literary culture. I'll be running their responses on Fridays for the next weeks, months, or however long it lasts. It should be some interesting content for anyone interested, and it's also a sneaky form of bookstore research. Mostly, I'm just nerdily eager to hear what these smart, interesting folks have to say about their borough and their neighborhood. There are probably a million answers to the question "Why Brooklyn?" You've heard some of mine – I'm looking forward to hearing some of yours.