word unto one’s mother


things were looking up. i’d scored a rent-stabilized flat on greenpoint avenue, a fifteen-dollar-an-hour job fighting city hall, and a girl who was empirically out of my league. my friends were all moving to town, from maine and massachusettes and los angeles and poughkeepsie. one by one, they wound their way into my sleepy little neighborhood; two by two, they settled into its subtle rhythms.

grego’ was a block away, his window accessible at any hour via an old brick tunnel that ran beneath his building. chris and coach and boots nabbed a still-under-construction three-bedroom up by the bridge, bought a hot pot, showered at the y, and carried buckets of water up the stairs to flush the toilet. b.s.g. and the jumes landed right around the corner, in a sagging four-story walk-up recently purchased by my then-landlord boguslav, but we could call him “bob.”

bob had been fixing up the place in the hope of enticing some of the neighborhood’s more lucrative newcomers (although, to his credit, he didn’t try to price out or intimidate the tiny, barely mobile 92-year-old polish woman on the second floor). he hoped in particular that one of those strange new bars that seemed to be blooming on every corner might take root on his ground floor. he built a pretty, old-fashioned facade (probably not unlike the one that had been torn out and bricked over, back when enticing a business onto franklin street was a laughable ambition). soon enough, the windows were papered over, and the sounds of urban renewal began to issue from behind them.

greenpoint was still in that early stage of gentrification when the phenomenon’s downsides are easy to overlook. we didn’t yet have a starbucks or prohibitively expensive boutiques or fancy-people restaurants or art students commandeering our bars for their birthday parties. polish was still spoken on every sidewalk, and manhattan avenue was lined with dollar stores doing a brisk business. paloma hadn’t burned down, and all change seemed for the best.

we theorized excitedly about what manner of improvement was happening behind the brown butcher paper. a bar would be fun, but maybe not the best of neighbors, and we already had a local favorite a block away. a coffee shop would be better, someplace quiet to sit and read and work and make new friends. better still, a diner. just imagine rolling out of bed and demanding french toast. yes, please.

eventually we learned the site would house greenpoint’s first english-language book store. a real book store, full of books. it was better than anything we’d dared to imagine. at last, our neighborhood was complete.

one saturday morning, on our way to the farmers’ market, we found the windows, still opaque, had been branded with paint and decals. “word,” they read. so far so good. “books. stationery. gifts. kids’ stuff.”

“oh,” we sneered in despondent unison. “it’s going to be that kind of bookstore.”

here’s the thing: part of moving to a place like greenpoint is assuming a certain posture, a suggestion that you’ve always been, and will in all possible futures continue to be, exactly as you are now. coming from somewhere, or leaving for anywhere else, are strictly prohibited. it’s a fragile illusion that becomes nearly impossible to maintain in the presence of children or their parents. the mere thought of procreation will set the foundations of my freewheeling, freelancing community a-tremble.

already the first baby had started to attend happy hour at the pencil factory. but she was sweet and quiet and her parents were friends with the bartender and they never wheeled in a freakin’ stroller; we were still a far cry from the raging breeder militias of park slope. but suddenly, staring down the sign of our bookstore-to-be, a trajectory had become apparent. we could see where this was headed, and where we were headed, and, worst of all, our own complicity in bringing about such ruination. “huzzah,” we’d cried in our naiveté, “build us a bookshop.” now we were going to have one of those “bookshops” that sold trinkets and tchotchkes and stationery. to parents, no less.

my expectations were accordingly low when i finally stepped through word’s grandly opened door. sure enough, i found inside very little that i wanted to buy. although, to be fair, this was because the contents of words’ shelves almost exactly mirrored what my own already held: michael chabon, miranda july, bill mckibben, michael pollan, jonathans lethem, franzen, and safran foer. shelves of mcsweeney’s. a small collection of “graphic novels,” which, while less extensive than my own, included most of its highlights. even the stationery, that inventory that was so damning in the abstract, made me aspire to be the sort of person who still wrote physical letters.

christine, word’s proprietor, smiled and greeted us and immediately began disseminating local gossip; it was our first inkling of the neighborhood nexus she and her store would become. she asked us what other books we’d like to see and talked up the events she hoped to schedule. i grabbed a copy of fun home, which i’d been meaning to read, and left, still uncertain just how to appraise our newest commercial resident.

three years later, three things are clear:

1. word is an unambiguous credit to its community. it hosts an almost uninterrupted procession of signings, readings, and launches, persuading the likes of rick moody and isabella rossellini to grace our humble franklin street. it organizes book clubs and craft circles and running groups and singles’ nights and innumerable other means of congregation. it cedes valuable shelf space to the work of demonstrably unprofitable local authors (including this one). it keeps us literate and interesting. it’s pretty.

2. word endorses a much broader and ultimately more sustainable notion of community than do many of its customers (including this one). What this kind of community lacks in specificity and exclusivity, it redeems in its ability to evolve and continue. the store caters not just to the hipsters we are, but the children we once were, and the child-rearers many of us will (or have) become, and in so doing situates us in a continuum we are not always eager to acknowledge. it has even produced a child of its own, widely agreed to be another neighborhood treasure in and of himself. maybe he’ll grow into the kind of twenty-something who’s suspicious of book stores that sell kids’ stuff.

3. greenpoint is still awesome. if word’s presence in fact portends the upscale armageddon i once feared, it does so no more than my own. maybe death by gentrification is inevitable; maybe we can’t help but destroy the things we love by the mere act of loving them. and if so, i can’t imagine a more friendly or socially valuable place to pass the time between now and then.

[ this illustration was drawn for the zinester’s guide to n.y.c. (edited by ayun halliday, forthcoming from microcosm) and will hopefully appear therein. those who are excited by such things can see it in various states of undress below. ]

word bookstore on franklin and milton

word bookstore on franklin and milton

word bookstore on franklin and milton

word bookstore on franklin and milton

Word Bookstore, Greenpoint

signed 11" x 14" cardstock print • $12.00 + $4.50 s&h


  1. Julie B. says:

    Let’s be clear about another thing: diner? Cockroaches! Eww! Art gallery was the ill-advised hope of residents of 86 Milton St. #4; we anticipated many wine-y openings. Fortunately, we got beer-y, casserole-y and baked good-y events that brought together all sorts of folks from the neighborhood.

  2. josh says:

    Another beautifully-written travelogue. Are you thinking of becoming the cartoonist Bill Bryson?

  3. Erin says:

    this was a lot of fun to read; i’m glad to hear that the bookstore turned out to be an asset!