Thursday, June 18, 2009

6 + 1: Interview with Jessica Stockton Bagnulo

A very happy full disclosure: Lobster & Canary is proud to be a Founding Patron of and (in a very small way)a Community Lender to Greenlight Bookstore. Read on!

Preamble: Jessica Stockton Bagnulo is a big nerd about all things books and Brooklyn. She has worked in independent bookstores in NYC since 2000 and currently works as events coordinator at McNally Jackson Books in Manhattan. In September 2009 she will celebrate the long-awaited grand opening of Greenlight Bookstore, her very own bookstore (with fabulous partner Rebecca Fitting) in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. She is a member of the board of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and a founder of the ABA Emerging Leaders Project for mentoring young booksellers, and often speaks at book industry events on digital media, graphic novels, and author events. She blogs at The Written Nerd and the Greenlight Bookstore blog. She lives happily in Park Slope with an adorably literate husband.

L & C question 1. In A Voyage to Arcturus (published 1920), David Lindsay imagines and describes the colors "jale" and "ulfire." What color or colors would you discover for us, where would they fit on the spectrum?

JSB: Hmm, how about "efflorescent" (like yellow highlighter with champagne bubbles)? I should think of something greenish, for Greenlight... perhaps Greenlight itself could be a color, though I'm not sure if it's the exact quality of light through a tree's leaves at noon in full summer, or the tantalizing dark light at the end of a dock in West Egg.

2. What is the impetus behind Greenlight? What will differentiate Greenlight from other bookstores?

Greenlight is the culmination, for me, of a very long process that began when I realized that being a bookseller was the only job I would ever love, and somewhat of a calling for me. In trying to figure out how to make a living at that, I realized that I had a lot of ideas about how to make a great independent bookstore, and that I wanted to be a Proprietor someday. Since I had no capital whatsoever, I set out to learn everything I possibly could about the art and business of bookstores, about starting a business, and about the communities of Brooklyn where I wanted to open my store. Along the way, I wrote a business plan that won an award from the Brooklyn library, got in touch with the wonderful Fort Greene Association, and eventually connected with Rebecca, who had a very compatible vision of the perfect bookstore, and the nest egg and get-up-and-go to get things really going. All of these serendipitous factors, as well as my absolute certainty that this was what I was going to do with my life, were part of making it happen.

Greenlight won't be entirely different from other bookstores. Rebecca and I have 25 years of experience in the book business between us, and we're interested in bringing the best practices of the indie bookstore tradition to life in this store: well-read staff, great customer service, curated book selection, an emphasis on the local. At the same time, we intend to take advantage of every opportunity that the new retail environment offers, including smart design, e-commerce, social media, electronic books, etc. And we have the sense that the future of the bookstore is partly as a gathering place for the community of readers, whether it's around an author reading or a book club or a casual conversation. So Greenlight aims to bring together the best of the old and the best of the new, with an emphasis on community. And of course, we'll be different because of the community we serve: Fort Greene, Brooklyn, a diverse, literary, vibrant small town in the midst of the city. We love this neighborhood so much and can't wait to see how it shapes what Greenlight becomes.

3. How will you shelve the "genre books"? Conversely, where do you put fantastical tales by folks like David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas), Richard Flanagan (Gould's Book of Fish), Bharati Mukherjee (The Tree Bride), not to mention the perennial border-crossers such as Calvino, Eco, Borges, Kafka...?

I'm so glad you asked! Rebecca and I have this crazy idea that all fiction is created equal -- that it's nearly impossible (and essentially counterproductive) to separate mystery from "high literature" from science fiction from experimental fiction. There's so much good work that's being done using all kinds of conventions, fantasies, trope, and combinations that we'd rather just carry it all. So we're creating one giant fiction section that will shelve every non-nonfiction book alphabetical by author -- if Neil Gaiman ends up next to William Gaddis or David Mitchell ends up next to Margaret Mitchell, so much the better! We hope the joy of discovery (and the ease of finding things) will justify our quixotic quest to de-ghettoize genre fiction, and we'll be quick with recommendations if someone is looking for a certain type of author. We'll see how it works.

4. Any thoughts on how to make Greenlight a really great place for young readers (with or without their parents in tow)?

We've put a lot of thought into this, and are still doing so -- neither Rebecca nor I specialize in children's/young adult literature, though obviously we both grew up as readers. We're designing the store to have a large children's section, somewhat separated from the rest of the store, where parents and kids can browse together or sit and read. The young adult books will be between the regular fiction section and kids, so that teen/tween readers don't have to go into the "little kids" section to get the good stuff! We'll also have YA next to the graphic novels section, a particular favorite of mine and a great gateway drug for teen readers. Beyond that, we hope to offer young readers the same thing we do for any browser/buyer: books that are easy to find and easy to get lost in, plenty of seating for perusing at length, and a staff that can answer all their questions (we intend to hire a crackerjack children's book buyer). I'd love to work with local schools and other groups on programming for kids and teens, too -- we will most definitely have a weekly story hour, but that's just the beginning of the possibilities.

5. What sequel are you most hoping gets written?

Hands down, Susanna Clarke's sequel to JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL -- not a month goes by that I don't wish I could read that novel again for the first time, and rumor is that Clarke is at work on another novel that takes the characters from the first in a different direction and and adds others.. The short story collection THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU was a morsel of goodness from that imaginary England, but not nearly enough.

6. Greenlight is a project rooted in the Fort Greene community-- tell us more about that.

As I mentioned, I hooked up with the Fort Greene Association after my business plan got some media attention. As it turned out, they had recently done a survey of neighborhood residents asking what kinds of retail they thought the neighborhood needed -- and the number one choice, across all demographic lines, was a bookstore. I love this because it demonstrates not only what a bookish neighborhood Fort Greene is, but also that the neighborhood is making choices to grow in a conscious and sustainable way and avoid some of the pitfalls of gentrification. Anyway, the FGA folks threw us a party last September just to introduce the bookstore project to the community and demonstrate their support -- over 300 people came, and we made connections with architects, authors, designers, and a lot of folks that became our community lenders. Take a look at the Greenlight Bookstore blog for details on how the Community Lender Program works ( -- essentially, people support the business by giving us small loans to help with startup capital. We've raised nearly $65,000 that way -- amazing!! (We got approved for a biggish small business loan, too, but we'd rather owe money to people we can thank personally.) In the meantime too, neighborhood excitement about the bookstore is fevered -- the other day Rebecca and I were in front of the store and were hailed by a passerby who enthused about how much he was looking forward to the store's opening. I've never seen nor heard of this level of support from a community for a bookstore that doesn't even exist yet -- we feel incredibly lucky to be a part of this neighborhood!

7. Jessica's turn to query Lobster & Canary:

Okay, I'm giving you a choice of questions to answer.

1) Someone suggested recently that literary bloggers would make great facilitators for author interviews, book clubs, or other events that could bring the virtual and physical book community together in a bookstore. Do you have any ideas or thoughts on ways that bloggers and bookstores could work together?

2) CLOUD ATLAS is literally my favorite book, and I love all of the others you mention in question #3 -- so what have you read recently in that vein, and can you give me some reading suggestion?!?

L & C: Oh, Jessica, great questions. Pity the poor Lobster & Canary having to choose which one to answer...stay answer (answers?) forthcoming in tomorrow's post...

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