Playwright Calvin Alexander Ramsey, age 66, is the latest children’s book author to add “bookseller” to his many accomplishments. He would like to open a pop-up children’s bookstore in the Bronx in September. Almost exactly one year ago, Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney opened An Unlikely Story in Plainville, Mass., and earlier this year Judy Blume cofounded Books & Books Key West in Key West, Fla.
Ramsey said that he always considered himself to be a writer, although he didn’t begin writing until late in life, following the 9/11 attacks. But bookselling was never part of the literary equation. The idea for creating a bookstore for pre-K to teens has only come together in recent weeks. In part, it grew out of his many school visits, far more to private than public schools for his two children’s books – Ruth and the Green Book (Carolrhoda), written with Gwen Strauss, illustrated by Floyd Cooper; and Belle: The Last Mule at Gee’s Bend: A Civil Rights Story, written with Bettye Stroud, illustrated by John Holyfield (Candlewick).
The bookstore also emerged from the many hours Ramsey spent at children’s stores, especially Bank Street Bookstore on New York’s Upper West Side. Bookstore manager Andy Laties encouraged him to work with the New York Mission Society, for which Ramsey has begun collecting children’s books for the shelters it operates throughout the city. And as a recent newcomer to New York—he moved to the Bronx from Atlanta three years ago—Ramsey has observed a lot of children in his new home.
“Literacy in the Bronx is tough,” Ramsey said. “I’d love the kids here to have the same conversations about books that they have at [Bank Street].” He searched for a way to bring books to his underserved community, when, he said, “It kind of stabbed me in the face.” He knew of only one bookstore, located in Co-op City: a Barnes & Noble was to have closed in 2014, but a community outcry forced a compromise between the landlord and the bookstore. And he wanted underserved public school students to have more opportunities to meet authors.
After initially thinking that the best way to serve young people in his area would be to create a children’s book festival in Heritage Field on the site of the old Yankee Stadium, Ramsey began to consider opening a kids’ bookstore. The idea took shape last month when he was having lunch in Bryant Park, where he ran into Laties and Veronica Liu of Word Up Books. Liu mentioned that her bookstore had started as a pop-up, and the pieces fit into place. Ramsey, who refers to her and Laties as his “brain trust,” realized that instead of looking for a permanent location, he could do a pop-up.
Ramsey describes much of his writing career and his life as “walking through this thing like the Peter Sellers movie, Being There,” and certainly the bookstore, which he has tentatively named The Reading House, has a similar feel. Since that chance encounter Ramsey has found a space at the former Concourse Plaza Hotel, once one of the city’s most elegant locations, now an apartment house for seniors. “Right now the space is pretty much empty, it’s raw,” Ramsey acknowledged. But the ground floor has been home to other pop-ups, and he is convinced that it can work for the bookstore.
To cut costs, Ramsey is planning to rely on mostly volunteer staff, and he will offer books in English, Spanish, and French. With a playwright’s imagination, he can already picture story time in the 1,500 sq. ft. space with actors dramatizing children’s books and seniors from the floors above to tell the children stories about their own lives and what the Bronx was once like.
While the idea for the store continues to percolate, Ramsey is working on turning his play The Green Book, on which his children’s book is based, into an opera. A trailer for a film that draws on much of the same material, The Green Book Chronicles by Ramsey and Becky Wible Searles, will air on Saturday at Cinema Village in New York City as part of the Workers Unite Film Festival. He’s also in the midst of shopping a book on America’s first black female jockey, Cheryl White.
Ramsey can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.