A new bookstore is opening in New York City, in Brooklyn's hip DUMBO neighborhood--and if that's not remarkable enough news in itself, the store will focus almost exclusively on small press poetry books. "If it's something you can get at Barnes & Noble, chances are we won't have it," said Farrah Field, one of the two proprietors of Berl's Brooklyn Poetry Book Shop, which will open its doors at 126A Front Street in Brooklyn in the middle of this month, soft-launching around a September 18 event to promote a new literary magazine called Sacred Behavior.
Field met her husband and business partner Jared White while they were both attending the Columbia University MFA program, where they both studied poetry writring in the mid-2000s. They were married soon thereafter, and began selling small press chapbooks at the now-famous Brooklyn Flea, which runs four markets in various parts of Brooklyn, in 2011. "The flea was a way to get things started," said White. "We were so accessible to people not looking for poetry," but to whom, White continued, they could hand sell. The couple was surprised to find that many people would become interested in the handmade chapbooks they were selling (from presses like Rescue Press, Birds, LLC Letter Machine Editions and Ugly Duckling Presse, all familiar names to contemporary poetry fans) if they put some work into their pitch: "It was like we were studying for a PhD to make a $7 sale," said Field of the work they put into knowing their books backwards and forwards.
"We always wanted to open a space," said Field, "for the community things we wanted to do, like events and showing art." The couple had actually put their Flea market participation on hold while they tended to their newborn son over the last few months, when a space more or less fell into their laps. "We'd look at things," said Field of their initial search for a space, "but we were being shown the kinds of places where a tree was practically growing out of the toilet, or it was so far away--we could afford a place in Redhook, but would anyone come to a reading there on a snowy day?" Then they got an e-mail from a tenant in this gallery space in DUMBO, who had been looking for a co-renter. They had seen the space a year ago, but the tenant decided to go with someone else. That arrangement didn't work, and the space opened up again this September 1. They couldn't pass up the opportunity and were back in business.
With the new space, Berl's is expanding beyond chapbooks, stocking lots of full-length collections from small presses distributed by Small Press Distribution. But, said White, "we're focusing mostly on contemporary poetry, a lot on handmade books." They are also planning to carry a curated selection of children's poetr and they'll also stock "really pretty editions of authors like Whitman, Bishop" and other stronger sellers, said Field. "We are aiming more for being interesting than being comprehensive," said White. Unlike Boston's famous Grollier Poetry Book Shop, "where you walk in and there are books everywhere, we want something more sparce, everything front-faced," said White.
Field notes that "a lot of the chapbook presses haven't been used to working with bookstores," and that, in general, they tend to have no more than two copies of the books they sell, so they're in somewhat uncharted territory.
While the couple doesn't expect the store, which will be open five days a week most likely from noon to eight, as well as by appointment, to make a lot of money they do want it to pay for itself. They've got some novel ideas that move beyond the usual readings and book parties. Field hopes run "poetry trivia" nights, and they intend to also run gallery exhibitions of book-related art. They also envision the store as a kind of New York poetry tourism destination, where students from the city's many MFA programs might meet up and "educate themselves about these communities they're entering through poetry," says White.
As for why they're opening a store when so many others have closed, White said, "we are entering a different phase, like how record stores have gone to vinly. We're selling chapbooks, and you can't get chapbooks on Amazon. The margins aren't huge, but this is a space where it's a niche that can't be filled on the Internet. It' can't be filled by a superstore."