Campaign Supports Literary Culture of Bronx


By Theresa Schliep

The Bronx Book Festival will bring authors, readings and books for purchase. (Kevin Stoltenborg/The Fordham Ram)

When the last general interest bookstore in the Bronx closed in 2016, Saraciea Fennell said she had to do something about it. So Fennell, who was already kicking around the idea of a book festival for the borough known for its literary history, decided to make a Kickstarter campaign.

Flash forward to 2018, and Fennell has crowdfunded over $35,000 for The Bronx Book Festival, set to take place May 19. The event, scheduled for 10 a.m.-6 p.m. at Fordham Plaza, will feature panels of authors, prose and poetry readings and opportunities to buy books from a soon-to-be independent bookseller, Noelle Santos.
Fennell said she thinks the literary culture in the Bronx does not always get the attention it deserves.

“The literary culture is invisible in the Bronx right now,” she said. “I don’t want people to think that it doesn’t exist, because there are tons of people out there doing the work to get the community engaged.”

Various panels will be dedicated to children, teens and adults, according to Fennell. The festival will also feature a picture book tent, where children and their families can working on reading and illustration activities.

The Bronx is home to places like the Poe Center and the Bronx Council for the Arts, both of which work to celebrate the vibrant literary culture contained within the Bronx. Edgar Allen Poe once called a cottage on Kingsbridge Road and Grand Concourse home, and his poem “The Bells” is said to be inspired by the bells on Fordham’s Rose Hill Campus. Other writers from the American literary canon spent time in the northernmost borough. James Baldwin went to high school in Bedford Park, and Mark Twain leased an estate in Riverdale for two years.

Despite this history, the last-standing general interest bookstore in the Bronx, a Barnes and Noble in Co-Op City, closed in 2016. Santos is trying to change that with the Lit Bar, an independently-owned bookstore she plans to open. Fennell said Santos will be the primary book seller for the festival.

Some Bronx politicians have accused different businesses of refusing to provide certain services to the poor, predominantly black and Latino borough. Back in 2016, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said that Amazon committed “digital redlining” in denying Bronx same-day delivery that wealthier neighborhoods received.
Fennell said the borough’s desire for a bookstore or another literary venue often goes unsatiated.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Bronx has been named the poorest borough in New York State,” she said. “Most of the borough is made up of Title I schools, and their libraries aren’t as well stocked as others.”

The weekend will also include school visits by famous authors on May 18. Fennell said authors will visit Title I schools throughout the borough, an opportunity she did not have growing up in the Bronx.

“Growing up, I never had an author from any racial background come to my school and visit,” she said. “I never attended a bookstore event with an actual author.”

The festival will include panels and readings with different authors and poets. Fennell said representation is important, as publishing tends to be a predominantly white and wealthier industry.

“I think one way we can help the publishing industry get there is by doing events like this in a largely diverse community to show them that there are people who write books who look like you,” said Fennell.

She hopes this will inspire young people to pursue careers in writing and publishing.

“Hopefully, it will spark an interest for them to one day write a book or become an illustrator, or to become an editor and work in publishing, become a publicist, or become a marketer, because we need all different types of people with all different types of socioeconomic backgrounds… because that’s how you get a more diverse pool of books out into the world,” she said.

In a video on Twitter, Fennell expressed her appreciation for the support people have shown for the book festival. She was hoping for some sort of response from the publishing community, but said she was floored by the response she received from people on Twitter and beyond.

“To have over 630 backers backing this initiative,” she said, “that’s phenomenal.”