For close to a decade, Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria in New York City has redefined what bookselling can look like. Located in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, the store has carved out a unique space as a pro-community institution, run entirely as a collective.
Word Up grew out of Seven Stories Institute, a nonprofit founded by Gene Fellner and Dan Simon in 2005 that was focused on getting books into the hands of people who otherwise would not have them. In early 2011, Veronica Liu, a Seven Stories editor and board member, created a reading/writing/theater after-school program for teens in Washington Heights and the South Bronx. Then that June, she launched Word Up Community Bookshop/Librería Comunitaria as a one-month pop-up shop in her neighborhood and became convinced that a bookstore would thrive there. A crowdfunding campaign raised $70,000 from more than 800 supporters, and in 2013, the store opened its doors.
But Liu was uncomfortable with existing bookstore models and believed a new structure was needed. She convened neighborhood residents, and together they decided to run the store as a collective, with volunteers devoted to bookselling, readings, distributing fliers in multiple languages throughout the community, and planning events. All major decisions for the store are still discussed and put to a vote by the collective, which has more than 60 active members.
Nearly a decade later, that model has proven resilient. The store has six paid employees, including Liu, who serves as general coordinator of operations. As many as 60 volunteers worked there on any given day, including several under the age of 20, before the pandemic. Now that’s down to closer to 20 volunteers.
Liu is quick to point out that the model succeeds because of the commitment of the collective’s members to take on hard work and hard conversations. “Our collective functioning isn’t a utopian dream,” she says. “But the shared experience we have of working in this way—or even of just attempting to work in this way—has been developed over time, by us, for each other, and with ever more efficient suggestions of how to do better.” It has improved for volunteers and the communities the store serves.
As part of Word Up’s commitment to rootedness in the community, members of the collective regularly go to major industry educational forums, such as the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute and Children’s Institute. As they develop their professional bookselling skills, they have also deepened the role of BIPOC groups in a predominantly white industry.
“There has been much industry reckoning with diversity, inclusion, and equity of staff, audience, programming,” says Ruth Weiner, director of marketing and publicity for Seven Stories and Triangle Square Books. “Access to books has been central to [Word Up’s] mission since the store’s inception, and has been one of their guiding forces. All of this effort has led directly to book sales and to events with authors big and small.”
By the time the pandemic began, the bookstore was poised to adapt to community needs in ways that go far beyond the traditional mission of indie bookstores. Word Up continued to sell books online, with employees processing orders at all hours. At the same time, the collective transformed the physical store.
In her nominating letter, Washington Heights resident Nicole Marie Gervasio, literary festival and public programs manager for PEN America, commented on the store’s ability to adapt to the changing needs of its customers: “At various points in the pandemic Word Up was also a pop-up Covid self-testing site, food pantry, and voter registration hub that gave away tote bags of free books and PPE while visitors sought their services,” Gervasio wrote. “They installed their own people’s fridge to alleviate our neighbors’ food insecurity. They ran online book drives for local public schools and community-run nonprofits. I heard about new Covid strains to watch out for and advice for navigating the complicated process of getting a vaccine from Word Up long before I ever heard it mentioned on the radio.”
In a trade where booksellers often describe a tension between meeting community needs and improving the bottom line, Gervasio noted that Word Up has shown a whole new way to envision bookselling. “It’s a very rare thing to be able to say that the indie bookshop is the backbone of a neighborhood,” she added, “but they really have gone above and beyond the normal definition of a bookstore.”