A Literary Melting Pot Celebrates Five Years

store front of Word Up Community Bookshop
The eve of Word Up's fifth anniversary party. Photos by Amy Lee Pearsall.

Between the rise of e-readers, online discount retail and big-box bookstores fading into the woodwork, there seems to be no shortage of people eulogizing the printed word (even here on Clyde Fitch Report). If the thought of an independent bookstore maintaining a Manhattan presence seems like an anomaly, to spot one successfully operating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in a gentrifying uptown neighborhood is akin to seeing a unicorn. Yet, such enchantment exists in the all-volunteer Word Up Community Bookshop in Washington Heights.

Books are displayed for sale
Word Up Community Bookshop celebrates its fifth anniversary.

Word Up began as a pop-up store in 2011 during the Uptown Arts Stroll and was hosted in a space negotiated with the landlord by the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA). Five years later, it is still standing — in a brick-and-mortar location. Under founder Veronica Liu, Word Up is today as it began: equal parts bookstore and community hub. Its diverse, often bilingual programming contributes to and reflects both a shop and neighborhood identity that, to many locals, feels somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Word Up has regularly featured literacy events and programs for uptown youth, hosted writers and artists from multiple disciplines, co-programmed 2013’s Uptown Lit Festival, and has distributed tens of thousands of books to readers. Word Up’s primary mission is to get books into the hands of people who need them, want them and do not otherwise have access to them. Through its volunteers, Word Up has proven to be an effective nonprofit vehicle.

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People mill about the bookstore.
A typical evening at Word Up.

While there are new books on the shelves — quite a few from neighborhood authors and some from uptown legends like Junot Diaz and Lin-Manuel Miranda — a fair amount of the offerings are gently used. Donated books are cycled through the shop’s Community Sponsored Bookstore (CSB) initiative. Much like purchasing a share in a Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA), the difference here is that, rather than receiving a share of a farm’s harvest, one receives a share of used books. Locals and visitors can join their CSB program, volunteer for shifts, or just check out the programming on any given night. For the cost of a subway ride, you too can become a sustaining member of Word Up and thus part of the magic.

And now, five questions founder Veronica Liu has never been asked…

What need did Word Up fulfill within the Upper Manhattan community as a pop-up shop during the Uptown Arts Stroll in 2011, and how would say it is still relevant today?

A turntable is displayed next to a stack of books.
A literary party waiting to happen.

Word Up provided — and continues to provide — much-needed gathering space to some of the nearly 220,000 people living in Washington Heights and Inwood. In the nearly 15 years I’ve made Washington Heights my home, I’ve found no shortage of arts and culture in this densely populated space. But it is precisely that — space, and access to it — which is of utmost concern for many of the artists and culture makers here. Besides the need for physical space — for non-commercial gathering, commercial display, performance, rehearsal, and studio work — there is a strong need to have a way to communicate about its availability in all languages and formats. Spaces are necessary, so that people can meet each other and influence each other’s art and ideas, so that all our cultural work can continue to thrive without worry of being priced out.

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As a community center, the shop offers extraordinarily diverse programming in more than one language. How do you handle your programming and marketing?

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Veronica Liu and her baby
Founder Veronica Liu and Word Up’s newest volunteer. Photo: Will Glass.

It often depends on the month. Also, as a volunteer-run space, it may depend on what the programming co-coordinators have going on in their personal lives (like, in my case, a new baby). On average, I’d say about a third of our events are Word Up-initiated events — either one-offs or a regular series — planned by the programming co-coordinators. This includes much of the Face Out reading series, many of the films and concerts, story time family breakfasts, and special events like our birthday parties. Another third of events are initiated by others who organize so much on a regular basis at Word Up that they’ve made the place a home for their event/program. This includes the No Name comedy/storytelling night, Word at 4F’s spoken word series and teen program, and Uptown Stories’ end-of-semester showcases.

Over the years, our open mic has been sometimes hosted by one of the Word Up volunteers, though currently it’s hosted by Jason Rosario and thus co-promoted with Washington Heights Music Festival. Then a third of events are proposed by community members looking for a space for their events. We ask that anyone organizing an event be responsible for promotion. We will probably feature the event in our newsletter and on our website, and also make a Facebook event page for it, but it’s not always guaranteed. If it’s an event that we are planning, we’ll make a flyer and do other kinds of outreach and promotion, like send press releases and do listings. But nothing beats having the featured performer tell their people about the event.

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How effective has the CSB initiative been for the shop, and how does the nonprofit model work for you?

Memoir and Biography stacks at Word Up Books
Some stacks at Word Up.

The CSB has been a great way to get people to buy books while being mindful of the values that we enjoy promoting: the importance of supporting local business, the idea that giving gifts of books is nourishing, and the joy in the agency kids seem to feel when you give them [CSB-issued] wooden nickels and say they can choose whatever they want, within certain parameters.

We have supplemented our fundraising with two Indiegogo campaigns and other end-of-year or birthday campaigns. We keep our used book prices very affordable (most used books are between $1 and $5), and we regularly donate books — most often to teachers requesting books for classroom libraries, but also to prison book programs and other groups on a case-by-case basis. The volume of books that we recirculate free of charge — and the decision to keep our used book prices as low as they are in order to be accessible to as many people as possible in our low-income neighborhood — means that our structure as a non-profit makes a lot of sense for us. Our annual budget breaks down so that our book sales and our individual donations are about equal.

We also have grants as an income stream, though at the moment that figure is much lower than our book sales and individual donations. We’re working on increasing our grant and foundation funding, and hope that a big multi-year situation is in our near future. And, coinciding with our fifth birthday this June 2016, we launched a sustaining member drive: supporters can sign up to have $5 (or more) deducted from their bank accounts on a monthly recurring basis.

Word Up has about 60 current volunteers, with 25 to 30 of them working shifts each week. How do people become involved? What makes long-term volunteers stay?

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A volunteer reads a poem at an open mic outside of the store.
Volunteer Rick Van Valkenburg reads an original poem during Word Up’s recent fifth anniversary celebration.

People often come to the store for an event, or because they were looking for a bookstore in the area, or because someone they knew told them to go — and while they’re there and enjoying the vibe, they ask how to volunteer. We have about a dozen people still with us from our old location (Broadway and 176th St.). There are four of us who have been working together on making Word Up since the moment we had a key to that old space. All of us long-term volunteers have all helped build Word Up in very concrete ways, and I think we have all felt a sense of wonder each time it’s advanced to some new level. I’m sure everyone has a lot of different reasons for sticking around, but for me it’s been amazing to experience just how much we’ve been able to achieve as a group. It’s one thing to achieve your personal dreams and all that, but it’s a whole other — and, arguably, harder — way of working to try and make collective dreams come true in a collective way.

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What next for Word Up to undertake?

Eventually, we want to buy a building! Word Up has been used as a lot of things — bookstore, performance space, screening room, gallery space, formal or casual meeting space, class/workshop space, tutoring/after-school program space, rehearsal space, production space, private rental space — and some of these can be done simultaneously, while some of these could use separate, dedicated space. We could fulfill more community needs and desires with more space, could customize the space, and shed the worry of rent increases! To get there, we are first working on developing salaried positions that can oversee Word Up and also these big plans for the future, and starting to do research and planning. Stay tuned!