From Greenlight to McNally Jackson to Word to Books are Magic, it’s undeniable that independent bookstores in Brooklyn are thriving. But the recent opening of The Center For Fiction in Fort Greene cements the borough’s literary status. The 17,500-square-foot space is located directly across from BAM, in what has arguably become the cultural hub of Brooklyn. “Within a three-block area, there is Center for Fiction, Theater for a New Audience, BAM, BRIC, Urban Glass, 651 [Arts], MOCADA, Roulette,” says Noreen Tomassi, Executive Director of the Center for Fiction. It’s the perfect setting for “the only organization in the U.S. solely devoted to the creation and enjoyment of the art of fiction.”
But what exactly is The Center for Fiction?
A bookstore, membership community center, classroom, event space and cafe, this expansive space is for those who love to read and write to connect. A large bookstore welcomes book lovers into the sunny first floor, while a cafe encourages lingering. “We wanted to create a space for readers and writers to come together and just enjoy talking about storytelling, talking about reading, and creating their own stories,” says Carla Cain-Walther, the PR and Marketing Manager for The Center for Fiction.
Completing the first floor is an airy auditorium for readings, Q & As and screenings. Upstairs is the member’s space, with writing workspaces, a full library, a grand reading room, classroom space and an outside terrace and bar. Thoughtful touches are sprinkled throughout including custom tables etched with quotations in the cafe, photos of authors on the walls, and literary references in the drink menu. “From the time you walk in, you see some words on the glass that are meant to spark the imagination and then you’ll see [author] quotes on some of the walls upstairs that are almost like whispers,” says Tomassi. “It’s all meant to just spur creativity.”
Sparking creativity since 1820
Center For Fiction may have just opened in Brooklyn, but it’s been calling NYC home since 1820. Originally called the “Mercantile Library”, it was a private library just for merchant clerks. First located on Pearl Street, it moved to Astor Place and finally Midtown, where it remained until its move to Brooklyn. “While we were in an old beautiful building on East 47th Street, it was out of date and it was in a neighborhood that people generally didn’t come to in the evening,” says Tomassi. “We needed more room, so we decided to sell that building and look for a location elsewhere.” Fort Greene was the dream, but it took many years to make it a reality.
You can become a member here
The book store, cafe, and event space are all open to the public, but the membership program, which starts at $150/annually for an individual, gets you all the perks a bookworm could hope for. (It’s also tax-deductible; The Center for Fiction is a non-profit.) Along with discounts on writing workshops, reading groups, and more, membership grants you access to a glamorous, private reading room that is perfect for curling up with a good book. There are no laptops allowed, for a reason. “We really want people to just unplug and feel connected to each other,” says Cain-Walther.
Also on the members-only floor is a warm-weather terrace, and come June it will feature a full bar, perfect for striking up conversations about your favorite authors. Looking for something to read? The member’s library holds over 70,000 books which you can take out with your personal library card. Looking to bring guests? The membership includes two day passes for guests to accompany you. Additionally, CFF offers writer workspaces for rent that includes a desk for writing that Great American Novel. The Center prides itself for supporting new writers and offers an emerging writer’s fellowship that includes prize money, a workspace, and monthly dinners with other fellows and members of the publishing industry.
There are classes and book clubs, too
The Center has a great lineup of offerings for both writers and readers. Semester-long writing workshops (in person, starting at $445 for 6 sessions, and online) and more affordable one-day boot camps (starting at $90) led by best-selling authors like Teddy Wayne, Idra Novey or Jac Jeme whet the appetite with small classes limited to around 10 students. CFF is also the home of the Crime Fiction Academy, a niche area of interest including specific classes like “Crafting the Perfect Crime” and a basement collection of crime fiction that is extremely comprehensive and dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. “Public libraries buy a lot of crime fiction but they also weed it [out],” Tomassi explains. “[This] is an unusual collection in its depth and its scope. And so we like to keep it intact.”
For those who prefer to read rather than write, there is a wide swath of reading groups ranging from a member’s monthly club to highly specialized multi-week reading groups for everyone (starting at $126) themed around books, authors or ideas. Explore the prose of James Baldwin or go deep within a single Henry James novel. Cain-Walther calls these close reading groups “a cross between a book club and an English class.” But unlike college, you can grab a glass of wine before settling in.
An incredible calendar of author events
Fans of fiction will love the lineup at Center For Fiction. Like any Brooklyn bookstore, there is an incredible calendar of author events. Each event is $10, but that includes a voucher for the same amount toward a book at the store. A conversation between Ann Beattie and Michael Carrol will occur on April 24th and just a few days later on April 27th, Jonathan Lethem will chat with Cristina Rivera Garza about the process of writing. “One of the things we’re focused on doing in the future is working with writers who appeal to various communities from around the world in Brooklyn,” says Tomassi. “For example, we could have a writer read in their native language because we have this incredible screen in our auditorium and we can just scroll the translation into English on the screen.” Beyond fiction authors, they are also expanding into other genres. “As the center has expanded, our notion of storytelling has expanded,” says Cain-Walther. In addition to writers, they intend to include musicians and filmmakers, too. “We really want to celebrate storytelling in all of its forms.”
A novel approach to therapy
The most intriguing aspect of the Center for Fiction is their “Bibliotherapy” program, called “A Novel Approach”. This service caters to people at a crossroads in their life, facing, say, divorce, marriage, the death of a loved one, sobriety, or a mid-life crisis. For $200, you’ll meet with a Bibliotherapist about what you are going through, and they will recommend a year’s worth of reading, individualized to you and your issues. For $375, they will actually send you each of the books at the start of each month. “Encountering the right book at the right time can have like a huge effect on your life,” says Cain-Walther, “and literature is a way to get some guidance.”