By Jason McGahan
To the transplants who’ve lived in Bushwick the longest, the neighborhood’s grit is nothing short of a virtue, and its lack of creature comforts is a source of pride.
It must have something to do with the factories and cement yards, the scrawny trees and parks without pigeons or squirrels.
A 24-hour health-food store is no restriction on freedom. But with every new amenity the landlords make up reasons for the rising rents.
Artists who moved here to work 10 years ago are accustomed to not having late-night Thai food delivered. But more and more young people with college diplomas and money to spend are moving to Bushwick. And they have needs, too.
Wyckoff Avenue has a story to tell. Four of its darkened storefronts have turned into busy bars since June. The new beauty salon charges $350 for a woman’s haircut and $150 for highlights. Real estate sharpers rent out the Northeast Kingdom for powwows after Sunday brunch. There’s a new Italian restaurant, a new Mexican restaurant, a yoga studio, and three new places to drink a latte.
Around the corner from Wyckoff, they’re serving authentic Southern cuisine out of what was a vacant building at the start of the summer. A British pub is set to open two avenues away, on Wilson, in the fall.
That’s about the extent of the changes. No wait, the largest outdoor beer garden in the five boroughs is set to open any day now in East Williamsburg, which now—and it’s no surprise why—calls itself Bushwick. Down the street a new music hall brought to you by the Knitting Factory opened last month. Three smaller live-music venues likewise premiered in that part of town in the spring.
The reality is that life on Brooklyn’s western frontier is getting easier, and those transplants who’ve lived here the longest are afraid that it’s losing its edge.
Like anyone else, Matthew Winn can read the writing on the wall. He opened Molasses Books last month, and he thinks the timing is just right. Molasses is being called the first bookstore in Bushwick, which is to say it’s been so long between bookstores that no one seems to remember the last one.
But Molasses wasn’t alone for very long. Human Relations, the second bookstore in Bushwick, opened a mere five days later. Matthew wasn’t told about Human Relations until the grand-opening celebration for Molasses.
From zero bookstores in the past decade or longer, Bushwick now has two of them opening within a week of each other.
“It sucks to have to sound like an advertisement for gentrification,” Matthew says, “but here it is. When there’s enough college-educated people converging on one spot, it creates a market for bookstores.”
Matthew puts in 13-hour days, six days a week, to run the store by himself. And he’s not hiring.
Molasses occupies a storefront on the ground floor of a three-story brick apartment building on Hart Street between Wilson and Knickerbocker. The street is quiet and mostly residential, located just around the corner from Matthew’s apartment of four years.
The shop is stocked with Matthew’s own book collection, which he built up during the year he spent booktabling in Kensington and Park Slope.
“I didn’t open a bookstore because I’m conscious of some demographic shift in the neighborhood,” he says. “I did it because I live here.”
He bills the shop as a place for locals to gather, saying most of his clientele lives within two train stops. He sells drip coffee, iced tea and iced chocolate, and encourages visitors to sit and read at the plywood counter he and his brother built by hand. Molasses is also up for a beer and wine license Matthew hopes the city will approve by October.
Chloe Erskine rides her skateboard over to Molasses every week or so to browse. She graduated from NYU in May with degrees in education and Spanish.
The Fugs are playing on the record player. Chloe is leafing through an art book on ancient Pompeii she pulled from the dollar rack outside. She’s glossing over the images for a lesson plan she’s dreaming up.
“It’s relaxing here,” Chloe says. “Sometimes I come and hang out when I don’t feel like dealing with my roommates.”
Matthew says he buys books for 30 percent of the sale price. He keeps a small and eclectic collection, with shelves on film, philosophy, psychology, and esoteric religion. Nearly half the store is devoted to 20th-century literary fiction. Matthew curates a display table with books by recommended authors like Jean Genet, Andre Gide, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Richard Wright, Jean-Paul Sartre, and the Marquis de Sade.
Molasses Books is open weekdays, 8am-8pm, and weekends, 9am-8pm. It’s closed on Mondays.
Six blocks downhill from Molasses, on Knickerbocker Avenue, and across Flushing Avenue, sits Human Relations, the newest bookstore in Bushwick.
Human Relations offers by far the larger, more diverse book collection of the two stores, not to mention its Bedford Avenue pedigree. The store is owned by the sellers behind Book Thug Nation, a popular used bookstore in Williamsburg.
Corey Eastwood, one of four owners, says that he and his partners have been collecting and combining their inventories for 10 years. They met as apprentices on West 4th Street, running book tables outside the NYU library.
I want Corey to say why he and so many other business owners are relocating from Williamsburg to Bushwick.
“Williamsburg has changed so much in the last few years,” he admits. “We still like it there, but there is definitely more of an artistic youth culture here.”
Good enough. The Bushwick store is also 50 percent larger than the flagship on North 3rd Street, he says. The shelves hold somewhere around 12,000 books.
The collection at Human Relations is as varied as it is large. A quick perusal of the labels on the shelves shows that they sell comics, sci-fi, science-nature, poetry, history, classics, religion-philosophy-psychology, foreign language, New York, and erotica in a section labeled “filth and smut.”
Twelve thousand books is ambitious. And the selection is carefully curated. After I ask a few direct questions of Corey, being sure to use words like market and demographic, I watch his eyes glass over.
Didn’t they plot this Bushwick takeover like a military campaign? He shakes his head.
“It was totally just what-the-hell,” he says. “We’re not business people. We’re not marketing people. We’re just book people.”
Book Thug Nation had more inventory than its shelves could hold. Why not, the owners reasoned, rent a big storefront on Flushing, stock it with an exquisite selection, and wait for word-of-mouth to spread around Morgantown?
Still though, the bookstore owners are reticent to share much about the business end of things. Neither one of them keeps a shelf for business-related books. For the sellers in Bushwick, there is, after all, a measure of purpose to their work, a field preserved for noble ideals to coexist, however imperfectly, with a commodity being bought and sold.
I want Corey to admit that Bushwick is an emerging market for books. I want him to own up to having correctly anticipated the demographic shift.
“I actually think a bookstore can transcend demographics,” he says. “Sure, it might appeal more to a certain demographic. But everyone reads books.”
Corey could have said more, but it’s the end of his shift and he looks worn out.
On my walk home I think for the first time in years about the transformative power to be gained from reading the right book at the right time. A line from Milton comes to mind, the one that’s posted up in the New York Public Library:
“A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”
Maybe the first-wavers have it right, and all that’s left for anyone in Bushwick to do is stand by and watch the whole thing get sold off to Disney. Except that what is happening here is the opposite of nostalgia. Property flips, values rise, leases aren’t renewed, and the compulsion is to sell what you have that makes you special. And yet gentrification has its perks.