The Center for Fiction’s New Home Reflects a Change in How We Read

A modern space addresses the needs of modern readers and writers

I t isn’t hyperbole to say the Center for Fiction is a New York City institution. Opened on Pearl Street in 1820 as the Mercantile Library, it was a space where merchant clerks could not only borrow and read books but gather and discuss them with their peers. Creating a community and fostering an active approach to fiction became the Center’s mission; events there have ranged from a discussion of “Uncanny Bodies” with authors Carmen Maria Machado and Tony Tulathimutte to a CFA master class with thriller writer Lee Child.

But those days have come to an end. The Center for Fiction is dead. Long live the Center for Fiction.

On February 19, the Center will reopen at 15 Lafayette Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn’s Arts District in an 18,000 square foot space designed by Julie Nelson at BKSK Architects. By saying goodbye to its older, more limited space on East 47th street, the Center plans to do more than get a cosmetic upgrade. It hopes to open a dynamic space that addresses how people approach fiction today.

Conceptualizing and maintaining an enormous new location at a time when traditional fiction book sales are declining poses some challenges. How do you attract people who aren’t already making fiction a priority? How do you hold their attention? One way to bring in visitors is to make the space itself inviting, and the building features a street level glass facade and spacious rooms throughout, all outfitted in a cool, library-industrial decor. Coffee and wine will be served at the downstairs cafe as well as the upstairs members area, where there is an outdoor patio for the warmer months.

But the solution also requires a more cerebral response, and the Center had to examine the way it defines fiction itself. “Fiction exists in all kinds of forms,” said Noreen Tomassi, executive director, “and we want to embrace that. The book will always be essential to who we are, but we want to look at fiction in a more inclusive way.”

The Center’s new vision feels timely given the current literary climate. We’re finally challenging the traditional idea of what a writer looks like, and as the “old white man” trope gives way to a reality in which great books are written by writers of all stripes, it makes sense that our vision of the reader gets a similar update. In part, that means accepting that “reading” might not happen with a paper page at all—recognizing the legitimacy of e-books, audio books, and television adaptations. It also means addressing the fact that people enjoy a spectrum of books, not just the classics, and rarely just one genre; they may pick up crime fiction one day and short stories or translated work the next.

The Center is addressing these cultural shifts through its programming — think a diverse roster of speakers and teachers as well as intersectional events, perhaps with the Center’s neighbors such as BAM and the Mark Morris Dance Studio — and its texts on offer. In addition to the Center’s vast collection of books to borrow, which includes a library devoted to mysteries, the new ground-floor bookstore will sell a “deep cut” of literature, highlighting indie presses and literature in translation in addition to the classics.

Tomassi sees the Center as a flexible, multi-use space that’s a point of connection. “There are all kinds of ways to connect with a community who loves reading and writing,” she said. “We’re trying to create opportunities. There is a silent nook where you can read, but if you want to come with four of your friends and drink wine and walk around you can do that, too.”

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