Books and Literacy in the Bronx

By Shanese Mullins

There was a time when the Bronx was known for literary giants like Edgar Allan Poe, James Baldwin, Mark Twain, Mary Higgins Clark and Stan Lee amongst others. Today, the Bronx has the lowest literacy rate across the five boroughs and, until recently, no bookstores.

Nearly 70 percent of third graders living in poverty read below grade level, according to a report commissioned by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This can be a critical milestone, the study found, because one in six children who don’t read proficiently in the third grade do not graduate from high school on time. The household poverty rate in the Bronx is 28.4 percent, compared to the citywide rate of 18.4 percent, and child poverty rate in the Bronx is 40.1 percent, compared to the citywide rate of 26.6 percent.

One way children become frequent readers is when parents or primary caregivers read to them out loud, according to a study by Dominic Massaro, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. This encourages children to pick up books on their own. Another factor is the parent’s level of education. It “is the strongest predictor of children’s cognitive and linguistic development as early as 18 months,” according to non-profit Literacy Partners, which helps low-income parents and families in New York City develop literacy and language skills.

One of the best things a parent or primary caregiver can do for children is have books in the home, according to a study published in the sociology journal Social Forces.

“I do think having books in the home is important. I was lucky enough to grow up in a home with books,” said K.M. Jackson an award-winning women’s fiction and contemporary romance writer. “I remember as a child we had coveted set of encyclopedias in our house. They were considered to be precious and I loved opening them and reading about other places far from my own world. I can also thank having books in the home for giving me my early love of romance. I originally fell in love with romance by swiping some of my grandmother’s early Harlequins.”

Bronxite Bria-Leta Greene, 28, a reader who found the love of books in middle school and has made it her life’s goal to work in the publishing industry. “For a long time I didn’t have books at home, no one was a big reader, so I had to build my own collection of books,” said Greene. “I spent so much of my time in Barnes and Noble growing up, it is a shame to think that others won’t have that same experience.”

There are about 90 bookstores in Manhattan but the roughly 1.4 million who live in the Bronx have only one. In 1999, Barnes and Noble opened its door in the Baychester section of the Bronx. For a long time it remained the only bookstore in the borough, excluding campus bookstores and sellers of religious text. Then in 2015 Barnes and Noble announced it was closing, due to a rent increase. With public outcry and the help of elected officials, it managed to stay open but only for a few more years. The store closed its doors for the last time in 2017.

“I love going into a bookstore, spending my time looking around, it’s honestly heartbreaking that there is no longer a bookstore near me,” said Greene. “I go to the library. I love the library, but I don’t spend hours in there the same way I do in a bookstore. I buy books on Amazon but it is not the same.”

Angelise Coronel is a working mom from the Bronx looking to buy books for her young daughter. “Now that there is no Barnes and Noble, I don’t know where I can go buy books in the Bronx,” said Coronel. “If I want to buy books I would have to go downtown and that is just too far. I want to take my daughter shopping for books.”

There has been resurgence of independent bookstore in NYC, but it seems the Bronx has mostly missed out on this phenomenon. The Lit. Bar in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx is looking to change that. Owner Noëlle Santos opened her store at the end of April.

“In Westchester, there are two Barnes and Noble stores minutes from each other,” said Jackson. “To lose the Co-op City Barnes and Noble and for those residents to have to travel to Manhattan, or another county, for a bookstore, in my opinion is terrible. I think this speaks to the way corporations view investing in urban communities of color. I saw the news that The Lit. Bar opened, and I am so happy to see that the Bronx now has an independent bookstore. I wish them well.”

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