Word Up serves as a liberatory library in the Heights.
By Dominy Gallo
A red awning wraps around the storefront at the corner of 165th and Amsterdam, shading shelves of secondhand books and a papered-over community fridge. “Word Up Community Bookshop,” it reads, and I was there in early September to buy coursebooks for an English seminar with professor Denise Cruz. Just inside, a pair of newspaper clippings, one in English and one in Spanish, features the bookshop’s 2018 initiative to collect books for young people who had been separated from their families at the border and came to New York as refugees. Bilingual pamphlets burst from plastic containers: information on disability rights protections, immigrant services, anti-discrimination law, health insurance support, and substance use clinics; advertisements for early childhood programs, music festivals, arts grants, and LGBTQIA+ sex education; socialist newspapers; flyers for tenants organizations, a youth chorus, and a bilingual feminist revolution group. This was a place of learning, of more than one kind.
“Making books available in communities that don’t otherwise have access due to language, geography, socioeconomics” is Word Up’s founding principle, the bookshop’s founder, Veronica Liu, told me over the phone on her commute. It’s a mission she was “taken to” when working as an editor at Seven Stories Press, from which Seven Stories Institute, Word Up’s parent organization, emerged. Years ago, an old friend of the Press’s publisher told him she believed the publishing industry had designed distribution channels such that books of political import don’t reach the communities they’re meant to serve. He took that as a challenge, and, in 2004, the Institute came into being; Word Up is its latest and greatest neighborhood initiative.
Liu recently opened a second location, Recirculation, to accommodate the sprawling collection of the late Tom Burgess, a longtime Word Up volunteer. The new space, on Riverside, doubles as a site for community organizing, just like Word Up’s main location, which hosts the Afrofuturism book club Black Magic; children’s literature festival Uptown Kid Lit; Uptown Reads’s bilingual book club events; the People’s Fridge for shared neighborhood food resources; Lo’Mas Lit Book Club for 14- to 21-year-old readers; and a series of afterschool programs—the latest, an eco-group called Earth Defenders.
In 2015, nearly three-quarters of characters in children’s books were white, I learned from two Social Justice Books printouts taped by the bookshop’s door. Children of color from all backgrounds combined had roughly the same level of representation as “animals, trucks, etc.” In 2018, the proportion of white kids in books for young people had dropped to half, but the difference made room for more quadrupeds than Black, Latinx, AAPI, and Indigenous children put together. The volunteer led me to the children’s section in the back, which brimmed with English, Spanish, and multilingual books.
When Liu took charge of Seven Stories Institute, she later told me, the first thing she did as executive director was start an after-school writing program in Washington Heights; the next was to found Word Up. “Then,” she said, “that took over my life.” For the first six years, the bookshop was entirely volunteer-run. Now, in addition to a handful of salaried staff, collective members—about 60 are active at a given time, though over 1000 have been trained in the last decade—take shifts, run events, and weigh in on the bookshop’s identity and image.
The project was conceived, in 2011, as a week-long pop-up. When the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, to whom Liu first made her pitch, lost the original storefront, it found a bigger space. A month became three months became a six-month short-term lease. When the building was sold, its new landlord preferred a tenant who would pay more than Word Up’s highly subsidized rent. But New York-Presbyterian/CUIMC and the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal development left only a few city blocks within the bookshop’s financial reach.
“As you get closer to the hospital,” Liu said, “the rents go up, like, 10,000 at a time.” (Meanwhile, patient care is responsible for roughly a quarter of Columbia’s GAAP revenue—$1.5 billion in the last fiscal year.) Eventually, Word Up found a landlord ready to accommodate them: Community League of the Heights, a nonprofit that assists community members with affordable housing, professional development, and education. It also rents out spaces to external organizations, like Word Up, that align with their values.
“Many good books posing alternatives to current governmental policies and attitudes,” Seven Stories Institute’s mission statement reads, “circulate largely within academic circles but never reach those most adversely affected by those policies.” Cruz was one of only two Columbia academics Liu could think of who sent her students to the bookshop, to ensure our coursebook dollars went to supporting Word Up’s mission. But Columbia affiliates are not, at base, the people the bookshop was founded to serve. When discussing these texts in an elite university setting, the target audience, to borrow from philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, is rarely in the room.
The neighbors and volunteers who walked into Liu’s makeshift book-sharing outfit in 2011 sensed its magic as immediately as I did. Word Up became possible not only because people volunteered to staff the register, but because the neighborhood organized to keep it alive. That first month-long project snowballed because volunteers and customers banded together and started a petition for a lease extension. Later, Word Up established its Amsterdam home with funds crowdsourced from 800 donors. “From the grand opening,” Liu remembered, “people walked in and said, ‘We need to keep this place here forever!’”