Books in the Hood


When LaVerne Harris decided to open a bookstore in the South Bronx two years ago, she knew she it wasn’t going to be easy.

The area is known for a lot of different things — urban blight, crime, poverty — and a healthy book culture wasn’t one of them.

But Harris, a 61-year-old primary school teacher who grew up on Simpson Street, was walking with some friends when she wondered aloud what it would take to put a bookstore in among the liquor stores, Laundromats, and take-out places.

“It would be a great way to expose local kids to what other neighborhood’s have,” she said to her friends. Someone should do it, she thought.

She set up shop in February 2007 on a stretch of Westchester Avenue that was once a haunt for neighborhood drug dealers. She called it Books in the Hood. For capital, she used $24,000 in a settlement given to her by her son Divine Harris, 36, who had received the money after he was injured in a work-related accident.

Two years later, the place is still open, even if it hasn’t turned a profit. “It’s still very much a labor of love,” Harris says.

On weekdays, while Harris is teaching writing at nearby P.S. 130, Divine watches over the store and helps drum up business selling copies of street fiction, also known as urban fiction or hip-hop lit, on the sidewalk out front.

Selling books in what is officially the poorest urban county in the nation has its challenges, and not necessarily the familiar ones, like competition from and big chains, that have forced so many other independent bookstores across the nation to shutter. One of the biggest problems, according to Harris, is a general lack of cash.

“People in my neighborhood don’t have the money to pay $25 for a hardcover book,” she says. “It’s a Catch-22, because you want to have the latest stuff, but people can’t afford it.”

So Harris has taken to sometimes selling new books for less than the cover price. She has also expanded the used book section, about half of the shop is used and new books, the other half primary school supplies and educational toys.

To keep it all going, Harris has picked up extra hours at work and taken money out of her pension. She figures she needs to make an extra $80 a day to keep the shop in business. Sometimes she gets a few months behind on the $1,700 a month rent, but still, she doesn’t talk yet about closing.

Instead she’s busy planning the “Bronx Literature Festival” that will fill a block of Union with authors and books on June 27th.

Beyond that, Harris quotes an old friend who told her that God will provide for her shop. And she laughs. “We‚ve been holding on.”