Store of Knowledge

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It’s Saturday afternoon in Bedford-Stuyvesant’s trendy new bookstore, and the children’s reading session finished hours ago. But Tawna Sells is still playing with her lively 9-month-old daughter, Maya, while chatting with a friend. Why go home, she asks, when you already feel like you’re there?

Bed-Stuy’s residents say there’s a growing sense of community in this neighborhood, and part of that may be due to Brownstone, the 4-month-old bookstore on Lewis Avenue between Decatur and McDonough Streets.

Before launching the bookstore, 30-year-old Crystal Bobb-Semple, a Bed-Stuy native, was a policy analyst with the National Community Building Network. She decided to leave for a more concrete project–founding a business in the neighborhood that could also function as a local institution. Using both private funds and a loan from the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Bobb-Semple and her husband, Walston, settled on Brownstone, Bed-Stuy’s first black-owned bookstore in more than 15 years.

“We thought of a farmer’s market or an antiques shop, but we thought people might only buy things and leave,” she says. “We wanted something where people could express themselves, feel at home, and exchange ideas too.”

With the city full of Barnes & Nobles, some say the days of the local bookstore are over. Bobb-Semple doesn’t agree: “You can’t find poetry from our artists, or Caribbean and African literature [at chain bookstores]. So I think that is our niche.” Brownstone carries a wide range of titles–everything from Oprah’s book of the month to Marcus Garvey.

Besides the children’s book reading group, the store features regular readings from up-and-coming authors and poets. It also has a book club and a regular series of workshops with notable speakers on a range of economic, political and social issues.

“There’s a personal feeling you can’t get from other bookstores, and that’s the edge,” says Sells. “The focus here is on you as a person.”

“I don’t want to focus on developing into a superstore, but in creating a viable resource for people in the neighborhood,” adds Bobb-Semple. “Bed-Stuy is a melting pot, and I think [Brownstone] will be a reflection of that.”