Jessica Stockton Bagnulo had been dreaming of opening her own bookstore for five years when she entered the Brooklyn Business Library’s PowerUp! Business Plan Competition last year. Taking home the $15,000 prize furthered her quest, as did the Fort Greene Association, which approached her about opening shop in its hood. The love didn’t stop there: A recent party promoting the as-yet-unopened store (whose name is still a secret) attracted more than 300 people, all offering financial backing, legal advice, even help stocking shelves. We went to Stockton, who’s currently the events and publicity coordinator at McNally Jackson Books and a Park Slope resident, for tips on starting your own indie business in Brooklyn.
One of your earliest posts on A Bookstore in Brooklyn was about being turned down for a small business loan. Was that a surprise? I suspected it would be difficult, but I didn’t realize the door was going to be shut in my face. I was like, I have $25,000. They were like, Great, we can give you maybe $10,000, when you find a space. But how can I find a space when I don’t have money to put down for the lease?
Now you have a partner, Random House sales rep Rebecca Fitting, and community members are offering you financial backing. Are they acting as investors? [Rebecca and I have] a set of terms where people will chose an amount of money between $1,000 and $10,000. We’ll administer it with a promissory note and we’ll pay them back that amount at prime plus 1 percent over five years starting a year after the business opens. We call it an investment, but it’s really a friends-and-family loan.
How much capital do you need to start your store? What we’re looking at for a 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot bookstore is about $250,000.
Has the economy made opening shop more difficult? My partner and I think the direction of the economy won’t be all bad for our plans. For one thing, it gives us the possibility of negotiating better terms when looking for a space, as opposed to a year or so ago when the power was all with the landlord. [And] we’re not worried that the market for books is going to disappear. There’s a bit of folk wisdom that says “books and booze” are what sell in bad times — those are the luxuries that people can afford, and that give the most bang for the buck. So I think the bookstores and bars of Brooklyn will be just fine.
What advice would you give someone wanting to start a business here? Learn as much as you can about your industry, and about business in Brooklyn. And just start talking about it. Hopefully the connections get made. There are also community resources all over Brooklyn — Pratt Community Council, the Myrtle Avenue Brooklyn Partnership. The Brooklyn Business Library is also a great resource.
Are indie stores benefiting from the buy local trend? Yes, absolutely. This is so connected to the buy local and organic produce movement. People are becoming aware of the ethical implications of where they spend their dollars. I think Brooklyn is one of the centers for that.
Do you have any favorite bookstores in Brooklyn? BookCourt (above) on Court Street is a longstanding institution and an inspiration. It’s got that great creaky-wood-floor feel, and it inspires a lot of neighborhood loyalty — and they’ve just expanded into a new cafe and event space! Word in Greenpoint just started a few years ago and is doing great — they have a great event series, and a funky, contemporary vibe. And I love Rocketship on Smith Street — my husband and I go there every couple of weeks to check out the latest comic book releases and talk pop culture with the owner. (I should say that I know the owners of all of these stores and they’ve all helped me in my quest to open my own store.)
Any good reads you’d recommend right now? Joseph O’Neil’s “Netherland” is a great New York novel that’s a bit like “The Great Gatsby” in its observations of an American striver and a bit like “Mrs. Dalloway” in its shifting flow of memory . . . and there’s a lot of fascinating cricket playing in it. I just finished Marilynne Robinson’s “Home,” which is a follow-up to “Gilead,” incredibly sad but heartbreakingly beautiful about family and religion and alcoholism and race and the difficulty of kindness. And for a perspective on America beyond the dichotomies of election year, the anthology “State by State,” edited by Fort Greene’s own Matt Weiland, is an amazing collection of writing on the minutiae of American geography, culture, and experience, with a really amazing lineup of contributors.
Sent by Nina. Photos of Jessica and her books by Jenna Bascom.