Bed-Stuy welcomes two independent bookstores on Tompkins Avenue

Alexander Dwindell behind the counter of The Word Is Change, one of two new bookstores on Bed-Stuy’s Tompkins Avenue.
Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

Two new bookstores have popped up on Tompkins Avenue in Bed-Stuy, filling the hole left by Brownstone Books’ closure 10 years ago.

Full service bookstore The Word Is Change has set up shop at 368 Tompkins Avenue, opening its doors just over a year ago, and speciality used bookstore Dear Friend Books took over 343A Tompkins Avenue, just a block up the avenue, in June.

Stepping inside The Word Is Change, one immediately senses the wide range of books on offer, with shelves tightly stacked to the ceiling and tables covered in piles of books, and also the focus on content tackling social justice issues. Founder Alexander Dwinell told Brooklyn Paper’s sister publication Brownstoner The Word Is Change is a general bookstore, stocking both new and used books, that supports radical social movements.

The Word Is Change is a full-line bookstore on Tompkins Avenue.Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

“We really make sure that voices and bodies that are not represented in most bookstores find a good prominent shelf space,” he said, adding that is essential to do in Bed-Stuy. “There’s so many authors and readers here, but since Brownstone Books closed over 10 years ago now there hasn’t been a full bookstore. There’s little pop ups or places that have some books, but not a full service bookstore.”

Dwinell has a long history with books, saying he has worked with them his whole life. His move to Brooklyn came when independent nonprofit publisher South End Press, where he worked, relocated from Boston’s South End in 2009. Along with working at other publishers, Dwinell has worked in bookstores in Boston, Brooklyn and London. “I used to joke that I worked in bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic. Now I can say I worked in bookstores on both sides of Atlantic Avenue,” he said.

The idea of opening his own store had been on his mind for a while, and when the pandemic hit the time was right to plan it out, he says. He entered Brooklyn Public Library’s startup business plan competition (a prize Greenlight Books won) and was selected as a finalist. The prize awarded him some funding to help flesh out the plan. After a few successful pop-ups, he opened the doors on October 29, 2021.

A look inside The Word Is Change.Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

The Word Is Change buys used books and Dwinell said one of his favorite things is making special orders for people and getting clued in to the voices people are looking for. So far, the reception from the community had been great, he said, and he wanted to keep building on those local relationships with more events. A few weeks ago, a professor from the school around the corner brought his class of sixth graders to the store to write poems based on book titles. The plan is to host a reading of those poems at the end of the semester.

“People thank us for being here, which I wasn’t really expecting. Not at all. Just from day one, there’s almost always people coming in through the store,” he said.

Dear Friend Books opened in June.Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

Up the block at Dear Friend Books, the aesthetic of the store is somewhat different. A spacious bar serving a range of hot and cold teas takes up much of the left side of the room, and bright wooden shelving displaying systematically organized and beautifully curated art and literature books takes up much of the right side. Near the entrance to the store is a rack with new speciality magazines.

Founder Anna Sergeeva said at its core Dear Friend Books is a bookstore selling mostly vintage books from the 20th century, and it also stocks magazines and stationery and art supplies from Japan. As well as the retail aspect, the store serves hot and cold teas and is in the process of applying for a license to sell wine, beer and sake.

Sergeeva, an artist who works with language as a medium, in her words, said the store and its curation is based on a knowledge organization system she created based on the seven chakras. “If any of your chakras are blocked, it manifests in ailments, whether that’s spiritual, physical, emotional, and I think a book in its best form can open a part of you,” she said. “The intention is to kind of create portals for people to go deeper into themselves.”

Inside Dear Friend Books.Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

Sergeeva acquires collections of books from estates and then selects the ones for the shelves that feel the most interesting or speak to her, “ones that have something to say, that kind of spark something,” she said. As for the organization of the store, “I try to lay it out in a way that’s perhaps more sculptural; I think it feels different than other bookstores do perhaps,” she added.

Before opening Dear Friend Books, Sergeeva, who lives a few blocks from the store, held a few pop-ups in the space with Martin Brewer of Black Star Vinyl and Shani Coleman, who has a vintage clothing business and helps to organize the Building Black Bed Stuy marketplace on Tompkins Avenue. She said during that time, she was talking to people who came in and learning about the space and the community, and also from Brewer and Coleman, before jumping into renovating.

Sergeeva then closed the store and did a complete gut renovation of the space, which previously housed a real estate office, with the help of a local furniture maker and artist, who happens to be a friend, she said.

A local artist has colored reusable cloth with vegetable dye for the store’s holiday gift wrap.Photo by Anna Bradley-Smith

Since Dear Friend Books opened in June, Sergeeva said the feedback she is most excited about is that a lot of different people have said they feel really welcome. “It’s really cool to be able to create space for that type of vibe. Also we do a lot of events in the backyard, and all the events are community generated.” Sergeeva said so far community members have held poetry readings, meditations and book clubs in the space, all of which had given a great opportunity to “introduce different people, different communities and kind of learn and be curious and evolve in that way.”

An area at the back of the store without shelving is slated to become an art gallery. When the liquor license is granted, the store will hold its first exhibition and show about 20 original signed photographs of the Bed-Stuy area taken by Joe Shwartz in the 1930s and 1940s.

This story first appeared on Brownstoner.