“A Place to Encounter Your World”: Greenlight Bookstore Adapts to the Pandemic

“For some people, it’s the barbershop, for some it’s the bar, for some it’s the bookstore,” Stockton-Bagnulo says. “It’s where you go to be with people when you need a place to go to encounter your world.”

Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo inside Greenlight’s Fort Greene store. Courtesy of Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo

Before the pandemic, her days started later and ran longer. Jessica Stockton-Bagnulo, co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore, would arrive at her store’s location in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, at 8:30 or 9 am and greet her staff in person.

Before the pandemic, she was on and off the sales floor all day. A bookseller since her days as an NYU undergrad, all it took was one glance to ascertain whether a customer needed help. “You see someone with that particular look,” she says with a smile.

Now, her days are lonelier. Stockton-Bagnulo is up before dawn and online shortly after 7 am. Usually, she works from home, but lately, she’s been going to the store to process web orders before her staff arrives – before the sun comes up, sometimes. Now, there are no employees to greet, no customers to help. By the time the store opens at noon, she’s back home. Otherwise, “I’m one more body in the space where we’re trying to limit the number of bodies.”

With light brown hair and bangs framing a round face, Stockton-Bagnulo, 42, talks rapidly, her enthusiasm for her work clear even through Zoom. Books aren’t just business for her – her apartment, on the border of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill, is packed with thousands of titles. The same holds true for her family.

“My husband is the only person I ever dated who reads more than I do,” Stockton-Bagnulo laughs. “That was ‘the thing.’” And her nine-year-old? “She’s doing the thing that I did when I was her age. She doesn’t want to speak to anyone in the morning – she just comes out with a book.”

Greenlight’s Fort Greene location in December 2020. Credit Clare Amari/Bklyner

Stockton-Bagnulo co-founded Greenlight in 2009 with her business partner, Rebecca Fitting. “We have really complementary skill sets,” says Stockton-Bagnulo, who runs events and marketing while Fitting handles buying and inventory. “I’m the talking-in-front-of-the-crowd person, and she’s the make-the-numbers-work person.”

Their store grew quickly. Debt-free within five years, the pair opened a second location on Flatbush Avenue in Prospect Lefferts Gardens in 2016.

2020, however, brought unforeseeable change. When the state issued its lockdown order, Greenlight was forced to turn on a dime, shifting its business entirely online. Predictably, sales plummeted.

“We had to lay off about three-quarters of our staff,” says Stockton-Bagnulo. “That was a day of really terrible phone calls.”

Greenlight’s pandemic story is one of many. Over fifty of the American Booksellers Association’s member stores have closed since the outbreak in March, says Allison Hill, the ABA’s chief executive officer. Sales cratered, with over a quarter of ABA members reporting a slump of 41% or more in early July. At the same time, stores faced increased expenses from shifting business online.

“Online sales are more expensive,” Hill says. “These stores are not built to be online fulfillment centers.”

At Greenlight, annual profits had fallen 43% by June, a painful hit in an industry where a 2% margin is considered a success. But the holiday season was encouraging, says Stockton-Bagnulo, and the deficit shrank considerably by the end of the year. Overall, Greenlight’s annual sales were down by just 14%, “which is honestly way better than we thought they would be.”

How is this possible?

“Independent bookstores are known for their resiliency, scrappiness, innovation, creativity and commitment to what is really viewed as a cause,” Hill says. While the pandemic was undoubtedly devastating, she pointed out that some businesses received an unexpected boost. In fact, 32 new independent bookstores actually opened during the pandemic, while others, such as those in beach towns, actually benefited from droves of city dwellers fleeing to their vacation homes.

Greenlight, too, has seen some unanticipated growth.

Patron waiting to enter Greenlight Bookstore in PLG November 2020. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

“Sales for November and December were actually significantly up at our Flatbush Avenue location – like, 40 and 50% up” compared to 2019, Stockton-Bagnulo writes in an email, though she acknowledges that capacity limits at Greenlight’s “higher-volume” location on Fulton Street drove sales down. Stockton-Bagnulo points out that the Flatbush store is in a much more residential neighborhood. “More people working from home means more people sticking around the neighborhood and shopping local.”

Greenlight’s story of the community rallying to support local business is one of many, Hill points out.

“Independent bookstores tend to have a loyal following,” she says. “Stores that have been very direct and honest about their dire circumstances have seen a significant outpouring of community support that has made a huge difference.”

Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California, for instance, received a surge in online orders after issuing a plea for help in late September; according to the store’s website, it has averaged 300 online orders a day for a month compared to 80 per day prior to the pandemic.

While Greenlight never issued a plea for help like Vroman’s, Stockton-Bagnulo says the community came through nevertheless.

Interior of Greenlight’s Fort Greene store. Credit Clare Amari/Bklyner

“Our online sales grew 500% in 2020, making e-commerce 41% of our sales overall,” Stockton-Bagnulo writes. She believes that customers have become “more intentional with their shopping,” realizing that the threat to independent bookstores “is so real and palpable.”

Greenlight participated in the ABA’s #BoxedOut campaign to promote independent bookstores over Amazon. The campaign included an elaborate display outside the store and in the windows.

“There was a huge response to that,” Stockton-Bagnulo says. “The social media response to the photos of the big storefront was huge.”

In fact, Greenlight’s origins are firmly rooted in the support of its Fort Greene community. Stockton-Bagnulo and Fitting financed the store’s flagship location largely through a community lending program, where people lent $1,000 or more that the store would repay with interest. It worked because the community wanted a bookstore. In fact, the Fort Greene Association even connected Greenlight with its landlord and architect.

So, it’s not hard to understand the neighborhood’s eagerness to preserve its local bookstore. Even today, with browsing time limited to 15 minutes and only 10 groups allowed on the floor at a time, Greenlight remains a feast for the senses – from art-like displays of books arranged on shelves and tables to the wall of Greenlight-themed gear for supports.

Even dogs are welcome. One regular, local author Bill Logan, often visits with his mixed-breed rescue, Jessie.

“This is her favorite place,” Logan says. It’s not hard to see why – as soon as they walk in on a Sunday evening, Jessie beelines for the bookseller at the front of the store, who immediately produces a box of treats. Jessie subsequently makes the rounds of the staff, one of whom even sat cross-legged on the floor to pet her.

“A bookstore is as much about the space as about books,” Stockton-Bagnulo says. “It is a space that feels welcoming. A space where people can encounter each other and have a conversation.”

Homeschooled in rural California as a child, books were Stockton-Bagnulo’s first gateway to the world, and as an adult, she has made that form of connection available to others. She leans into hosting author events so that she can turn a retail location into “another kind of space – a performance space, a space to interact with creators.”

Greenlight Bookstore November 2020. Liena Zagare/Bklyner

She has wrestled with maintaining that space during the pandemic. “Can we make that cultural space, that encounter and conversation and idea and safety and welcome space virtually? Is that possible? I think yes and no.”

She credits her assistant, Chelsea Carr, with “Translating” the experience on the sales floor to the store’s Instagram.

But for Stockton-Bagnulo, “the physical space is pretty special, pretty unique. When we finally opened up again for shopping, more than one person walked into the store and burst into tears.”

Greenlight’s staff attribute that culture to the store’s leadership – especially Stockton-Bagnulo – who understands the many roles a bookstore can play in the community and has dedicated herself and her store to filling them.

“For some people, it’s the barbershop, for some it’s the bar, for some it’s the bookstore,” she says. “It’s where you go to be with people when you need a place to go to encounter your world.”

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Clare Amari

Clare Amari is a freelance journalist living in New York City.

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