Brooklyn’s DIY Literary Spaces
An oral history of how Brooklyn readings, events, and literary festivals came together with nothing but can-do spirit
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The Brooklyn Letters project is a series of oral histories of literary Brooklyn from 1999 to 2009, presented by Electric Literature with support from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
This is the sixth installment of Brooklyn Letters. You can read earlier oral histories here.
Popularized by punks and artists decades ago, the “do-it-yourself” ethos runs in the veins of countless independent publishing houses and magazines, but we fail to realize how it most often shows its true self in the form of literary events and reading series. People yearn for a sense of belonging—or maybe they just want to press the palm of someone who can get their book published. Either way, readings and literary events both reflect and arise from the greater literary community. Literary Brooklyn in the late ‘90s to early 2000s was still sparse, but the aesthetic and energy was already there, waiting for the right voices.
In part two of our oral history focusing on the do-it-yourself ethos, we take a look some the literary climate in Brooklyn around the turn of the 21st century, with the launch of efforts like the Franklin Park Reading Series, curated by Penina Roth, a monthly literary reading event that has outlasted so many others to become one of the city’s most popular and recognizable series; Shortwave, the bookstore and event space run by Richard Nash and Soft Skull Press, home to countless impromptu readings and literary events; and the Fort Greene Park Lit Fest, an annual event presenting local writers reading from their work. Prevailing through the stories told and travails endured is that DIY spirit, the passion and enthusiasm that brought so many of us to literature in the first place.
Penina Roth [founder of Frankin Park Reading Series]: Because of family obligations, I couldn’t really leave the neighborhood, so I wanted to establish a literary scene/community close to home and bring famous writers to us. I really was frustrated because I wasn’t free to travel to all of the great readings I was reading about in Time Out that were in the East Village and the Lower East Side, because there was a lot going on. Everything was on the Lower East Side, East Village, all a lot of the clubs, maybe 75% have closed, because gentrification intensified there. But that’s where the scene was. That’s where you had the Happy Ending Music and Reading series, you had Mixer there; in the West Village you had Sunday Salon. There was stuff in Williamsburg, like Pete’s Candy Store; in Red Hook there was Sunny’s.
I was a community news reporter who had lived in Crown Heights for 14 years and I noticed the neighborhood was changing, and I’d seen in Time Out, late 2007, they were interviewing people about — so-called hipsters — basically they were interviewing hipsters about where they were finding cheap rent or something and somebody was talking about Crown Heights. I had an editor at one of the newspapers I wrote for and she was like, “I heard Crown Heights is going to be the next hot market.” All of a sudden, Spring 2008, these new businesses were opening along Franklin Avenue that were clearly catering to a different demographic and one of them — the very first in April 2008 — was Franklin Park.
I was writing a story, or stories about the transition, the transitioning neighborhood, I interviewed these new merchants and one of them was the owner of Franklin Park. First, I published a real estate article in the New York Sun and we had a mutual friend who connected us and then I became friendly with the owners. I started hanging out in the courtyard and the beer garden for hours, interviewing people — new transplants — trying to get a sense of what was happening to the community. I noticed a lot of the new transplants were very well educated, “creatives.” These are recent college grads, a lot of them were grad students. I would always see people reading. And at the same time, I had become friendly with David Goodwillie; he was kind of a mentor of mine and I had been attending a lot of his readings. And one of them in, I remember exactly where it was — April 2007, KGB Bar, and before that I had never really been to a bar. I didn’t realize that you could have literary events at bars. I thought it was a great idea.
Richard Nash [former editor-in-chief of Soft Skull Press and founder of the Shortwave bookstore and event space]: The Brooklyn thing happened because of everything going down. When the store was first created in Tonic, before we got kicked out — they wanted that space where the bookstore was to become a green room for the musicians. Don Goede, who led that, knew this little architecture firm and they made one massive metal object which was the key to it all. I think it got called the “book cage.” It was basically a series of straps that curved up and away so that it was affixed to the wall and then bent out into a C-curve then bent back around again. The whole thing was a shelving unit. You took a vertical shelving unit and bent it twice. You bent it at the top so that it bent around and you could bold it into the wall, and then it curved around at the bottom and extended out so that you could actually run canvas maybe, or wood, so that you could actually sit in it. It became a bench. The top of it was basically storage where the books sat spines up, because at that point it was parallel to the ground. The long part was classic display shelving, and the bottom part was a bench so you could sit inside a cave formed by that C and read. The fabulous, fabulous unit, the second it shifted from being just a book store to a book store and a publisher, the publishing operations went into the cave, so the people didn’t sit there and read anymore.
Instead they got there and laid out books and emailed editors. When we moved to Brooklyn, we disassembled that unit, shipped it to Brooklyn, and reassembled it with the exact same setup: books in the front, publishing in the back. In order to spread the word, both of the bookstore and as a part of being an active publisher in the world, we started a reading series every Sunday. It wasn’t a monthly, it was a weekly reading series. In some ways, you’re right in your overall architecture of your oral history to make sure to include reading series in the rubric because they really were a big part of how clusters got created in Brooklyn, of how things shifted from being an atomized series of places where people lived into a place where people could meet.
I would say in some ways it’s hard for a publisher to create communities rapidly because of the life-cycle of a book. It’s a year after you’ve decided to publish it that it comes out. There’s a real lag time, but a reading series allows you to be immediately present.
[The name Shortwave is] evocative of ham radio, the ability to communicate directly, the idea that there is a disparate network of people who share an interest. But yeah, we went where everyone goes. We went to Brooklyn.
Roth: In Crown Heights, you’re kind of straddling three worlds, and in the beginning, there were only two — Hasidim and Caribbean-Americans. I was very excited because, as a journalist, I was learning about these changes that are happening and they’re very subtle. It’s like things always move east from Park Slope. If you imagine the hub of gentrification in central Brooklyn was Park Slope in the mid-’90s, then you get Prospect Heights. Then moving east, you get the Crown Heights, throughout the outer edge of Crown Heights, Franklin Avenue. That’s where there were new businesses starting up. Most of the new businesses, maybe 3 out of 5 were started by people who were from Caribbean immigrant families. Vanderbilt is the big Prospect Heights commercial strip; the guy that started all that was Toly Dubinsky; he opened the first bar on Vanderbilt, Soda Bar. His customers, he was finding customers who were living in Crown Heights. They were pioneers and they complained. They were like, We have to walk so far to get to your bar; can you open a bar in our neighborhood? So they started looking on Franklin Ave. They found this old mechanic’s garage which was a drug den. Like people sitting there shooting up. They basically chased the drug dealers away so they went around the corner to Franklin Ave. They renovated this garage and opened Franklin Park in April 2008 and, of course, it was an instant hit because there was nothing else around; there wasn’t any competition. It becomes very popular — popular with the Caribbean American residents, people from neighborhood families. It’s popular with other longtime residents, like young Hasidim, and it’s popular with the new transplants.
Through Goodwillie I started meeting writers. And talking to the Franklin Park owners, subsequently, about a piece I was writing for The New York Times, I learned they were opening a larger space in addition to their courtyard and small bar, and as the weather turned colder, they wouldn’t have as much business because their business was centered around the beer garden outdoors. They were in a position where they needed to draw people to the bar, and I had these friends who were writers. Exactly three published friends, and I thought, “well this would be a great opportunity to showcase my friends” and I’d been meeting all these people from the community. So, here I have these constituencies that I’m trying to unite or bring together, kind of helping to build community and kind of bring together for an event. I just thought it would be fun, and then when I got an article about the bar published in The New York Times, it got me in with the owners, and so I approached them and they agreed to try it.
It was only supposed to be a single reading because I didn’t know what I was doing. I had not been involved in the literary world. I had three friends who were writers.
We did the event and started planning it December 2008 right after my New York Times article came out and David Goodwillie, my mentor, was in France for the first few months of 2009, so I couldn’t start it until March. He was very involved in the literary community. Very well connected, so at our first event, even his editor showed up, so we already have kind of a literary world getting involved. Jami Attenberg, another one of my idols, showed up. She was a friend of David’s. I was like, “Oh my god: there’s a celebrity at my event.” I’m pretty sure I had like 40 people there. My friend Matthue Roth, a performance poet that refers to himself as a punk author, taught me a lot about the basic production of the literary reading; he was a part of that “DIY scene” spoken word scene. He had also been part of Sister Spit, the only male member in a troupe.
He told me you need to have drink specials. The bar agreed to drink specials so we had cheap beer. We had decent attendance, enthusiastic response from the community. They sold a lot of beer. The Franklin Park owners did not know what a reading was, they thought it was a book club. I had to explain what it was, they didn’t know that there was money that could be made in literary events, and then kind of because of me, they started having literary events at other venues they own. One of the owners, Matthew Roff, gave me the idea to make flyers. So I made these flyers, I started dropping them off on Franklin Ave, talking to all the merchants and getting them to promote the event to customers. They were very helpful; they used to put the flyers in their windows. Matthew, who had become my mentor and encouraged me during my journalism career; he’s like one of the pioneers of the whole 5th Avenue scene. Southpaw, which he owned, was the first rock club in Brooklyn. They used to design flyers for their events. He told me, “Oh, you should go around and drop off all these flyers at all the coffee shops.” I also spread flyers around Prospect Heights and Park Slope; whatever was near Crown Heights. It definitely brought out a lot of people.
Elissa Schappell [co-founder of Tin House Magazine]: I think we were among the first people to arrive. It felt like there were reading series and stuff like that but it still felt to me very much like what was, at the time really happening, would have been happening somewhere else, like on the Lower East Side. But a lot of that would have been uptown. It was definitely in Manhattan. So when we came we were still doing, I mean still certainly thinking about the city and I do think that there were people who thought that by moving to Brooklyn in some way you weren’t going to be as ambitious. Or you didn’t want it as much. Or you didn’t want it to be — it wasn’t a serious project. That in some way it was kind of DIY, like we’re going to be making a zine because we’re in Brooklyn.
We could have continued to work in our publisher’s apartment. It would have cost us nothing. I think a lot of what we did, when we were having readings — we did do readings at places in Brooklyn, but a lot of that was still forming. But it was just absolutely — the vibe is different in the city. It was just — and maybe it was leaving The Paris Review — it just felt old and done to me. And if you’re going to work in a business that you’re passionate about, and you want to make change and you want to be part of something — you don’t want to do it someplace where the land is already been gone over, where everything’s been done. You’re not making a lot of money, that was a fact. But you get one life. You have to do the thing you want with this life. Why not lean in hard to taking some chances?
Roth: I was maybe one of the only journalists reporting on Crown Heights because journalists hadn’t really moved there yet, but that didn’t last long due to the great access to transportation, Brooklyn Public Library, Botanical Gardens, Prospect Park, all that. Early on you were having grad students and publishing people and journalists moving in. But really what happened was, I became busy with the reading series, and I wasn’t really involved in journalism anymore. This famous blog, run by Nick Juravich, I love Franklin Ave, used to promote my events so much on the blog. Back then it was really widely read because people would come to Crown Heights and need to find things — art events and things to attend. He would talk about them. My mission from the beginning was to feature authors the represented the community. It was very important to me to have diversity, to have Caribbean-American authors.
Johnny Temple [editor-in-chief of Akashic Books]: Before the mid-2000s, Brooklyn residents had to cross the East River to see most of their favorite authors speak publicly. In 2018 it’s totally different — this borough is packed with literary offerings. And the publishing business has started following the authors to Brooklyn. I think the Brooklyn Book Festival and the emergence of vibrant new independent bookstores like Greenlight, Word, and more recently Books Are Magic are an important part of this cultural evolution. The good people at Melville House Books have credited the Brooklyn Book Festival with helping lure them from Hoboken to Brooklyn. I had moved from Washington, DC, to Fort Greene in November 1990, and over the years I saw at least two unsuccessful attempts to open a bookshop in the neighborhood. But Fort Greene just couldn’t quite support the stores enough to keep them open. Writer Jennifer Brissett opened Indigo Café & Books at 672 Fulton Street in 2000, but the business had shuttered by the end of 2003. When Greenlight opened on Fulton Street in 2009, the neighborhood was finally able to support a bookstore. And while the store’s success is undoubtedly linked to the ongoing gentrification in the area, Greenlight has become a role model for how bookstores can become deeply engaged with their surrounding communities.H
Nash: I would say that Soft Skull was not so much a hub, well it might have been a small hub, but it was certainly a node. It was a big node. It was less like there was that one transformative moment when somebody came to the store as it was those repeated encounters, a number a which though not necessarily all of which happened in the store. A large percentage of them happened within a five mile radius of the store. The first way I came to know Lynne Tillman was because she read at the store.
It’s that iterated sense of ubiquitousness; you think of people’s social lives operating where they go out on their Saturday nights and stay in the other nights, but my life is the exact opposite. People don’t do readings on Friday or Saturday nights because everybody is out. You do your readings and book parties on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. My entire social life was being out those days and recovering quietly indoors on Friday and Saturday.
Temple: We also staged some wonderful public events, including a memorable discussion about [Richard] Wright’s legacy in October 2002 at the South Oxford Space featuring Nelson George, Kevin Powell, and Hazel Rowley. Several years later, my wife Kara Gilmour and I joined Aaron Zimmerman and the kickass team at NY Writers Coalition to stage the Fort Greene Park Lit Fest, an annual event that presents young neighborhood writers reading from their work alongside heralded authors like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Jhumpa Lahiri, and many more. From the first festival in 2005, the community response was very positive.
All of these endeavors were precursors to my role as cofounder of the Brooklyn Book Festival, a much larger and more ambitious undertaking that launched in 2006. A year or so earlier I had met then–Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and his staffer Carolyn Greer at a celebration for Cakeman Raven — one of New York City’s best bakers of red velvet cake — across the street from my home in Fort Greene. I gave Marty and Carolyn a copy of Akashic’s recently published collection Brooklyn Noir edited by Tim McLoughlin, and proposed that we discuss the possibility of starting a big book festival in Brooklyn. With the enthusiasm of Carolyn and her Borough Hall colleague Liz Koch, and a green light from Marty, we soon began making plans.
Roth: A lot of devoted attendees of Franklin Park Reading Series live within four or five blocks of the bar. They go and have no idea who the authors are; they go for the drinks and to discover writing. To demonstrate how incredibly dedicated, sophisticated, and literary our audience is, in 2012, Sam Lipsyte read in an amazing lineup including Catherine Lacey and Gary Lutz. Towards the end of the night, around 9:30pm; Lipsyte gets up there and he reads a story from The New Yorker. A new story. You know how long New Yorker stories are, and he’s abridging it, and it’s a very packed house. We used to let people sit on the floor back then, like right in front of the mic, right in front of the reader, so you have people sitting on the floor, this crowded room. And he reads for 45 minutes! You could hear a pin drop. Literally. It was so silent; they were so respectful, and even though, yeah they get like rowdy, they’re very enthusiastic. A.M. Homes read once and she had just been on tour for May We Be Forgiven. She’s like “Where were all you people in San Francisco?” The poet Mike Young read once and did a call-and-response with the audience, having them call out a refrain from one of his poems when he indicated it, just like a band at a concert. It exemplifies how the series is often so fun and captures an uncanny energy. Famous established authors go on book tours and they end up reading for very small rooms, so they appreciate it and it’s just kind of gratifying to get that response and the cheering and the laughter and people come to test out new work. People are bold enough and they trust us.
Brooklyn Letters is supported by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.