While I wasn't able to attend the ’s 40th Anniversary reading at on Saturday, I did drop by the after-party at the bookstore just in time to hear an employee, who was wearing a morning suit, read aloud from an official proclamation from the Brooklyn Borough President. It declared September 17, 2011 “Community Bookstore Day.”
"Whereas, it is a Brooklyn tradition to honor those organizations and individuals that display exemplary leadership and commitment to the people of their neighborhood and the borough..." the proclamation read.
Ezra Goldstein and Stephanie Valdez, the soon-to-be-official co-owners of the bookstore, were in jovial moods, sipping Brooklyn Brewery beer and eating "three-pie cake" with gloppy white icing and layers of cream and fruit.
Earlier in the day, more than a thousand people came to hear Park Slope literary royalty, Paul Auster, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Siri Hustvedt, Mary Morris and Haley Tanner, read poetry and fiction by their favorite authors from the last 40 years as they celebrated Brooklyn's oldest independent bookstore and one of Park Slope's most important informal community centers.
"This group of authors was chosen because they are very dedicated to the bookstore. Not only did they read but they had such nice things to say about the store,” Valdez said.
In 1971 when Susan Scioli, who owns the building and lives in an apartment above the shop, opened the Community Bookstore, Park Slope was just beginning its gradual transition from a working and middle-class Irish and Italian neighborhood to the gentrified and expensive place it is today. But in the ensuing 40 years, the store has had its financial ups and downs.
In 2001, Catherine Bohne, a longtime bookstore employee, bought the shop from Scioli. In 2005 the store nearly went out of business, but was mercifully saved, in part, by a group of individuals who each donated $10,000 and became part owners of the shop. But a devoted following among the Park Slope community also enabled the store to survive through the advent of Amazon and a Barnes and Noble just a few blocks away.
Goldstein, a former journalist and member of the Park Slope Civic Council, and Valdez, who used to organize readings and other events for the store, have been running the place for a year now and will officially buy the bookstore from Bohne in the next few weeks.
Standing at a long table with a white tablecloth, flower arrangements and wine and cheeses, I talked to a man who has just moved to Park Slope from Washington Heights, a real newbie.
"I'm so glad to have found this bookstore," he said while holding a stack of fiction he was about to buy. He was with a friend from Manhattan and we talked about why Park Slope is such a community with a capital “C.”
I went into my usual spiel about Park Slope being a college town without the college.
"That's a good one," he said.
I went on to offer a variety of theories: Maybe it’s the scale of the neighborhood and the fact that locals walk everywhere and enjoy standing on the street while talking with friends and neighbors. Or maybe it’s because there are many neighborhood meccas that provide people with places to hang out and feel connected with one another.
There's the Community Bookstore, of course, where it's always possible to have a conversation about a favorite author, an upcoming book group, or a hot topic pertaining to Park Slope or the world. But there is so much more.
There's the famous (and infamous) Park Slope Food Coop with its 15,000 members, who are required to work in order to enjoy the bounty of organic food, and love to gripe about the overzealous rules and regulations of the place.
There are the public and private schools and their various parent organizations where parents can contribute their time and energy in innumerable ways.
At religious institutions like Old First, , Kolot Chayeinu, , and St. Francis Xavier, locals come together to worship and engage in social justice activities.
Recently many local religious institutions came together to form Park Slope Interfaith Social Justice Network, which works with CAMBA, a non-profit that helps people get opportunities to raise their quality of life, to operate a summer homeless respite shelter.
There's the , a reconstructed Dutch farmhouse from 1699 that was central to the Battle of Brooklyn and is now a museum and an arts center, featuring theater, literary readings, musical events and film screenings.
Other places around the Slope are more informal community centers, but nonetheless they facilitate and nurture a sense of neighborhood and place. Prospect Park is an urban oasis, which provides year-round recreation and tranquility. There are two Farmer's Markets on the weekends, and music spaces like , , the Jewish Music Café, , the , and all help to form a cohesive community. But these are not the end-all-be-all, for the Slope is filled with cafes, two YMCAs and much more.
Indeed, neighborhood staples like the Community Bookstore and the aforementioned inspire the neighborhood and foster it. In these places, locals have meaningful interactions that reflect their values, interests and beliefs.
Talking to the Park Slope newbie at the bookstore, I still struggled to adequately express what it is that makes this community special.
So what is it? What is it that connects the people of Park Slope?
And then it came to me. It's not just the scale, the historic architecture, the park, the strollers, the schools, the Food Coop and cafes, the neighborhood activists, characters, politicians, writers and artists…
It’s that, we love it here and we want you to love it, too.