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Love Thy Community Presents The Lit Bar
Introducing the latest business in our ongoing Love Thy Community initiative. At Kith, we believe in uplifting underrepresented communities by amplifying their voices, and we are proud to continue this mission in partnership with Vault by Vans.
The program’s third installment features The Lit. Bar, a unique and dynamic brick-and-mortar bookstore located in the Bronx, and the only business of its kind in the borough.
Founded in 2019 by Noëlle Santos, The Lit. Bar is not only a hub for diverse literature, but it's also a cozy spot to gather with other readers and enjoy a glass of wine. Santos’ business is a testament to the power of community, and we're happy to support her and her team in their goal of making literature accessible to all.
Who is Noëlle Santos?
I’m a regular, degular, shmegular girl from The Bronx.
Why a bookstore? Was this a lifelong dream of yours?
I believe there are purebred entrepreneurs, and then there are people who are entrepreneurial – I consider myself the latter. I never imagined owning a bookstore or any type of business. In 2014, I came across a petition on Facebook that stated the last bookstore in The Bronx was in jeopardy of being displaced. I signed it and got some friends to join me, but it wasn't enough. I recognized that books were the windows that offered me possibilities and an escape from my challenging upbringing. I became enraged that "the adults" allowed our access to books to be up for debate. I felt cowardly for once measuring my success by how far I might one day get away from The Bronx. The reality that over 1.5 million people in the literary capital of the world could lose such a vital resource, and that no one was coming to save us, stopped me in my tracks. I decided to be the change I wanted to see.
When was The Lit. Bar founded?
I signed that petition on October 22, 2014 and The Lit. Bar was incorporated on January 15, 2015. It took me over 3 years to study two industries that were foreign to me, write a business plan, test the market, create a buzz, raise capital, and make it out of construction hell. I opened the store on National Indie Bookstore Day, April 27, 2019.
Why did you choose to incorporate a wine bar?
What better way to loosen our tongues and talk about the books we love? During my initial market research, I learned very quickly what indie bookstores were up against, and that I couldn’t just be a place to buy books. I needed to bring The Lit. Bar into the future in order for it to be sustainable, and that meant making it a social experience. I also needed something to counter the slim profit margins on books. The solution came organically to me because it’s the vibe I set when I’m reading at home.
What challenges did you face in your transition from HR to a bookstore owner?
One of the biggest challenges was that many gatekeepers in banking, real estate, and even some local politicians didn't believe that The Bronx was a viable market for a bookstore. This made it difficult to secure the financing and real estate necessary to open The Lit. Bar. Another challenge I faced was balancing my full-time job with the physically and mentally taxing startup demands. I worked up until the day my construction started and it took almost a full year to complete. It was a challenging journey, and still is, but this labor of love has all been worth it.
How has your community been a part of your journey?
From the very beginning, they showed up for me by contributing to my crowdfunding campaign and helping to make my dream a reality. Community members generously volunteered their time to make my pop-up shops a success. Even during the build-out of the store, the community was involved, voting on design choices, and complete strangers brought me dinner as I worked around the clock. Our neighboring businesses and landlord also played a crucial role by educating me on bar equipment, construction, licensing, and operations.In 2020, New York City was the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country's racial reckoning, and The Bronx was at the heart of it all. Despite such a challenging time, the community rallied behind us and ensured that we could survive the store closure and protests and continue serving them.
What have been some of your favorite accomplishments with The Lit. Bar?
While I was interviewing President Obama, I asked him to throw up the “X” for The Bronx, and he did it! It was at that moment that I felt like I made it. JLo, Carmelo Anthony, Mary J. Blige, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Fat Joe, Slick Rick, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Alfre Woodard, and more have all graced us with their presence. These opportunities excite me not only for the exposure and clout they bring, but also because connecting pop culture and literature helps me win over some of our young reluctant readers. We’re exposing them to careers in the book industry and inspiring them to stay and invest in their own community.
Tell us a bit about your design choices for the shoes.
When I first announced The Lit. Bar’s concept, a lot of the responses I received were “books and wine? That is so white”. I know where those internalized sentiments come from, so I wanted to show my community that books and wine are not reserved for white people. We too deserve nice things in our community and we can do so while preserving the culture that already exists here. This inspired the store’s theme of graffiti and chandeliers to pay homage to the art form born here with a touch of sophistication. I carried that theme onto the shoes.
Have you always been into poetry? What inspired your poem that we see on the back of your shirt? Hip-hop is poetry, so yes.I entered a business plan competition and rapped my pitch for a little razzle-dazzle (of course, I won). Those lit barz would later become the lyrics for the video of my crowdfunding campaign (I won that too). They state our mission and our ethos, and I thought it would be dope to keep them front and center on the t-shirt – emphasizing the lines that evoke emotion in our red wine brand color.
How does it feel to have your very own capsule with Vans x Kith?
I bet the world expected me to write a book before I designed apparel. So did I. I couldn’t dream of a more special way to bring in National Indie Bookstore Day and The Lit. Bar’s 4-year anniversary.It is truly an honor to have my very own capsule with such an iconic brand like Vans and create alongside a progressive and innovative brand like Kith. It’s a brilliant partnership and I am so grateful for the opportunity to showcase The Lit. Bar and The Bronx on a larger platform. Thank you for seeing us! This partnership is not just about fashion, but about shining a light on minority-owned businesses and amplifying our voices. I hope this collaboration will inspire others to support and uplift their own communities.
Do you have more planned for The Lit. Bar?
I can't speak about my future plans just yet, but here’s a hint: I believe that media is the future of retail.
Where can we find you?
131 Alexander Avenue in the South Bronx and everywhere @thelitbar. You can find me making bossy & bookish commentary and doing hoodrat things with my friends @1st.Noelle on Instagram.