Guest Interview n° 36: Christine Onorati

Guest Interview n° 36: Christine Onorati

Independent bookstores are few and far between these days, with online retailers like eBay and Amazon selling canonized works directly to your doorstep for a fraction of the price. So what makes them tick, and how do they manage to stick around? We sat down with Christine Onorati, the founder of WORD, the immensely popular and influential cultural epicenter in Greenpoint, to find out why. We discussed the increasingly diverse role independent retailers have to play in an era when your favorite magazine, op-ed, or piece of literature is just a click away.

WORD opened in March of 2007. How did it begin?

I had a bookstore before in Long Island. I closed it and I moved here. It was a little bit smaller used book store called the BOUNDRY bookshop. But the real reason is because we live here. We love it here. My husband and I moved to the neighborhood in 2006, and we moved the store here in 2007. It didn’t come out of nowhere. We had a store, but we just wanted to move it to Brooklyn, where people actually like bookstores. [Laughs]

WORD is nearly as much of a venue as it is a bookshop, and hosts a variety of events atypical for a bookstore. You don’t have all that many traditional readings. How do you go about booking events?
[We] brainstorm what we think will be a good event. Our philosophy is that there are so many events happening at any given time in New York City that we always try to make them be a little special. Maybe it’s a conversation, maybe it’s a party, maybe it’s the author being interviewed by somebody interesting. We try to stay away from straightforward, single authors standing on stage and reading fiction.

How do you manage to stay viable with online retailers, such as Amazon, that offer books at a fraction of the price? 

That’s a good thought―that we do stay viable. [Laughs] It’s hard. We always say we don’t look at Amazon as our competition because we can’t compete with Amazon. They sell books cheaper than what we buy them for. I hate bashing Amazon too much, but they don’t care about books. They use books to get people onto their website to buy other things. Because they sell them as loss leaders, they don’t have any interest in the world of books, so if people are just looking at price, it’s very hard. Books are sold everywhere, and people can get books very easily in many different places. It’s not enough to just have a place where you put books on the shelf―you really have to be a place where you want people to feel a part of it, more of a community of people who like the same stuff.

And WORD curbs to their tastes a little bit more.

Yeah, and it takes a while to build that relationship. We’ve been here for five years and we’ve been doing a pretty good job. We want to be a place where the neighborhood wants to come and feel comfortable. We never judge people. We’re happy to order anything. That’s the difference―people want to come here and be part of something. They want to really be part of it. And we want to make people feel very included in the store, as opposed to just ordering something online.

In addition to a successful bookstore, WORD has over the years become a popular community center for people with common interests and desires, literary and otherwise. Was this always your intention?

Like I said, you can buy books anywhere, so I really feel like if a neighborhood can’t support a bookstore it really can’t exist. I don’t really look too much for people from a million different towns to come and support us. It ultimately has to be a Greenpoint store. This is where we are, and I think we’ve found a place where people like us. I think we have to be a reflection of the community. The customers are a part of the store, they can come here and ask for anything they need, get their gifts here. I never want to be a kind of book store that makes people feel like they’re not cool enough to shop here.

What are your plans for the future?

To keep doing what we’re doing. I have no idea what the future of bookstores will be. It’s really bleak. All I know is that we are growing slowly every year, people like buying books here. I don’t really see a future where people are going to stop wanting books, but some people say that’s the case, and if that’s the case, I guess we won’t be around forever. I just don’t ever see books dying here. People like books too much to give them up.

Lane Koivu – Images courtesy of Christine Onorati