Notebook: Announcing our New Bookstore Partner, Astoria Bookshop! A Story of Queens (Part One)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Lexi Beach, Astoria Bookshop, Astoria, Queens

If each borough in New York City were considered a city on its own, the borough of Queens would be the fifth most populous one in the United States. Queens is said to be the most linguistically diverse place on earth, and one of the country’s most ethnically diverse counties. Approximately 47 percent of Queensians were born in another country. I’m a Quaker, and the Quaker Meeting House in Flushing, Queens, is New York State’s second oldest structure in continuous use for religious observance. We tell each other that it’s built out of the ship that brought the Flushing Quakers to New Amsterdam, but perhaps that’s Quaker myth, if one can speak of such a thing. The defense of Flushing Quakers from persecution was the country’s first stand for religious freedom. Now Flushing, not coincidentally, is has the densest concentration of different practicing religious groups to be found anywhere (peacefully coexisting, by the way).

In 2013, Lexi Beach, frustrated with an unsatisfying job in publishing, was scrolling about and discovered that, after the closing of the Seaburn Bookstore at Broadway and 34th Street, Astoria, Queens, was without a bookstore. “We read here, too,” posted an aggrieved Astoria resident. Astoria has more people than Bermuda, Monaco, Liechtenstein, and Gibralter. The neighborhood is one of the most ethnically diverse within record-settingly diverse Queens. (Fun fact: Astoria was named after John Jacob Astor, in an effort to persuade him to invest in the neighborhood, in which, in the event, he never set foot. Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg did, though, and created a whole company town around his piano factory, an empire that expanded to include a sawmill and foundry, as well as a streetcar line. Steinway is still a neighborhood on Astoria’s northern edge, and Queens—another record—has the city’s most diversified twenty-first century economy).

In 2019 we wrote in a Notebook about how Noëlle Santos, who reached out to Lexi Beach for advice, founded her bookstore The Lit Bar when the Bronx, another world-player-sized borough (not much smaller than Estonia), lost its only bookstore. Research shows that not being able to buy a book in your neighborhood is correlated with all sorts of social ills.

Lexi responded to the siren call and after a few roving events to gather a readership opened the Astoria Bookshop under the elevated N/Q line on 31st Street with her partner, Connie Rourke. Considering Lexi and the Astoria Bookshop’s story a few things rise to the surface. First of all, how much camaraderie among the guild of booksellers supports those who pursue this quixotic and non-renumerative calling. Noëlle relied on Lexi (Noëlle told the American Booksellers Association (ABA)’s BookWeb, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” to all the booksellers who offered guidance, especially “all the badass female owners in this independent bookstore industry”: Nicole Sullivan of Denver’s BookBar, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of (former Book Post partner) Greenlight, Veronica Liu of Word Up, Emma Straub of Books Are Magic, and Lexi); Lexi told the “Queens Memory Covid 19 Project” last spring that when she got started she reached out to “women who owned bookstores in Brooklyn,” some named above. The ABA’s statistics about an overall surge in independent bookstores may be somewhat dubious (the oft-cited statistic is growth of 35 percent from 2009 to 2015, from 1,651 stores to 2,227, but we don’t really have stats on the before-times, outside the ABA’s own membership growth). But they’ve certainly done plenty to foster a new generation of future-forward booksellers.

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Another thing that this band has in common is a mastery of social media and a flair for framing the story of their store as part of the larger story of their town, the struggles of Main Street, and the perils of trying to engage people with culture in an often unsympathetic commercial environment. Like Danny Caine of our former partner The Raven, and Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes, and Josh Cook of Porter Square, and Brad Johnson of East Bay, Lexi spins out a lively Twitter feed that chronicles the travails of a young(ish) hardworking person pursuing a dream and all the obstacles that stand in their way. It also tells the story of neighborhoods. Both Lexi and Danny Caine have pointed to the work the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has done in researching the effects of corporate monopoly in devastating local retail and, with it, local communities (see Danny’s appearance on the ISLR’s “Building Local Power” podcast and his book, How To Resist Amazon and Why).

The story of Lexi’s opening her store is indeed a story of its community. She told the “Queens Memory Covid 19 Project” that the shop’s customers were excited about the store before it even existed, helping to paint the walls when she set it up and bringing her lunch in the early days when she was holding down the fort at the register. She said the experience was like a barn-raising; she was humbled by it. “My first customer is still a loyal customer. He came in by himself in the morning and came in later with his wife and kid.” She described how a bookseller gets to know their customers and the community beyond them through what they buy and order. They surprised her by wanting more poetry! She also broadened the business section for them, and started stocking Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations after the third or fourth special order. She has watched her customers sell books to each other, watched their kids learn to read, hired them as employees. She talks about how she can see the diversity of Queens in its different kinds of readers. On Prime Day she encouraged them to support other local businesses, announcing donations to the local mutual aid society. She raised funds for a nonprofit started spontaneously last summer by a customer (and local author), Julie Schwietert Collazo, to help reunite immigrant families whose children had wound up in New York facilities, even finding age-appropriate books for the kids.

Astoria’s first blog post marked Bookstore Romance Day, a genre whose historic neglect by booksellers is starting to be understood as sexist. Their blog also has reviews of books by local kids, pictures of their literary Halloween costumes, and a list of alternatives to Dr. Seuss, with a thoughtful reflection about how the current contretemps follows years of concern by those professionally involved with sharing children’s literature about how to handle the racism and sexism captured in cherished works from the past. They held events like a Drunk Vocab Bee with local businesses.

Lexi’s candor and social engagement have extended to advocacy. In a now-famous Twitter thread (which I’ve quoted a bunch of times and which also received press coverage), she warned that patronizing bookstores would not be enough to save them without policies that are more protective of small businesses. She explained to customers the consequences of Amazon’s casual violation of an embargo strictly enforced with independent booksellers, and talked on TV about the importance of the post office for small business, and reflected on her decision not to stock Kobe Bryant’s children’s book on account of his handling of rape charges against him in 2003. (The question of whether and when a bookseller’s stocking decisions should weigh ethical considerations is rising to the fore now, as booksellers grapple with charges of long-standing racial inequities in publishing and big-ticket book deals are inked with high-profile politicians who have embraced bigoted movements and policies. The Ontario bookstore-publisher Biblioasis recently published a pamphlet by Josh Cook calling on booksellers not to promote or profit from books by authors who promulgate racist, misogynistic, or LGBTQ-phobic ideas.)
[Read Part Two of this post here! Pandemic and the Indie Bookseller]

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