On a recent afternoon on Front Street in Dumbo, a patron approached Jared White, the owner of Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop, and asked for recommendations of Spanish-language and Scandinavian poets. He pointed to “Poems,” by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Milán, and “Remainland,” by the Swedish poet Aase Berg. White and his wife, Farrah Field, opened the storefront two years ago, after several years of breaking even at the Brooklyn Flea, selling books on the ground floor of the Williamsburg Savings Bank building alongside soap and ceramics on artisans row.
Berl’s is among a crop of poetry stores in U.S. cities with robust literary communities, including Boulder, Cambridge, Milwaukee, and Seattle. Portland may soon join the list. Abroad, Lunar Poetry opened in London in August. Their presence would seem, at first glance, to defy the ongoing concerns among brick-and-mortar retailers about competition from digital sellers; e-commerce now accounts for about seven per cent of all retail sales, up from under three per cent in 2006, and Amazon looms over bookstores, in particular. But the theory now goes that stores that do one thing well or create an experience—niche retail, as it’s sometimes called—can thrive. Nationally, according to the research firm Real Capital Analytics, commercial investments in niche retail rose more than a hundred and fifty per cent in the past four years, compared with the four years before the financial crisis.
Retail may not get much more niche than poetry, which historically has never been a lucrative proposition. But it does have cachet in some circles, and a dedicated readership. The best poetry stores mix the scholarly with the whimsical, the linear with the arty. Berl’s is in a former gallery space, subleased from two artists, with exposed brick walls that have been painted white, barrel ceilings, a gray Lego sculpture of Walt Whitman, and an eighteen-chair area for readings. On one wall are seventy black-and-white portraits of anarchists and monarchs by the artist Miranda White, Jared’s sister, with whom he has collaborated on a book.
The store makes a small profit, but White, who combines the countenance of a studious poet with that of a family-businessman making ends meet, told me that the favors also plays a part in the poetry economy. “A reading for a beer,” he explained. That night, a group of poets from Massachusetts who were ten years out of their M.F.A. programs would be taking the mic at Berl’s.
White was inspired to develop a business plan for a storefront after seeing the balance sheet that the independent Greenlight Bookstore, an institution in nearby Fort Greene, had posted online. “Their numbers were amazing,” he said. Berl’s also grew out of White and Field’s friendships with poets—an early advantage in cultivating a dedicated community around the shop, which is named for his grandfather. Both of them have M.F.A.s in poetry from Columbia University; they met on his first day, as she was handing in her thesis. “We never had to defend what we were doing,” White said. “Everyone was a poet or a poet’s roommate.”
The books on sale are selected to appeal to a range of academics, writers, and other literary-inclined readers. They range from the expected—Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” Emily Dickinson’s “The Gorgeous Nothings”—to the avant-garde—John Cage’s “Zen Ox-Herding Pictures,” Cathy Park Hong’s “Engine Empire.” There’s a locked glass case with books from small presses: “Language Lesson, Volume I,” an anthology of Pulitzer and Booker Award-winning authors published by Third Man Books; “Eating the Colors of a Lineup of Words: The Early Books of Bernadette Mayer,” from SHP Archive Editions; and “Yoko Ono’s Half-A-Wind Show: A Retrospective,” from Prestel. Among the many handcrafted books is one with the words painted in letters that grow larger and larger until the end. Prices start at under eleven dollars and go up to two hundred and fifty dollars for a limited-edition box set of visual poetry by Les Figues, a publisher in Los Angeles.
Outside the shop, highly specialized stores are proliferating in Dumbo, which lies beneath and between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Traditionally, the area was filled with industrial buildings, where ale, coffee, tea, paper boxes, varnish, handkerchiefs, steel wool, and other goods were made or stored. Now, it’s a historic district, filled with condos, tourists, tech workers, and shops. Around the corner from Berl’s, Singularity & Co. sells science fiction. Across the street is an old-fashioned candy store. Down the street, there’s a surf-and-skate retailer. In this respect, the historic district evokes not just the industrial era, but the early days of the republic, when the overthrow of British primogeniture and entail laws first allowed independent citizens to put their wages toward shop ownership. (By the late eighteen-hundreds, the country’s non-farm purchasing power was spent mostly at mom-and-pop stores.) Siloized retail is now once again seen as a function of the vibrancy and character of a neighborhood, a reaction against the chain and big-box store wave that many small shops to close in the nineteen-eighties and nineties.
For retailers, the downside of drawing the kinds of affluent and educated consumers who want distinctive goods is that their presence also tends to increase costs for the stores. Not so long ago, Dumbo could only support a few shops. The neighborhood is now Brooklyn’s most expensive, with office space that costs between sixty-five and eighty-five dollars per square foot, on average, and retail space that runs about a hundred dollars per square foot. Residential space is also going at a premium; at nearby One Main Street, a triplex penthouse is on sale for eighteen million dollars.
Single-item stores in these kinds of areas have to rely on multiple strategies to survive. Creating aesthetically appealing spaces helps—for bookstores, it means being able to rent out their spaces for events. Retailers also have to insure that their products and aesthetic fit a neighborhood’s demographics, especially when those demographics are changing; gentrification can be a death knell for certain kinds of stores, and a boon for others. Across the Manhattan Bridge, in the East Village and Lower East Side, where hotels and boutiques on the Bowery are replacing restaurant-supply stores and small outfits, cafés, bars, and stores dedicated to shoes, toys, and kids’ clothing were among those that went out of business this spring; lease renewals in the area often include rent increases that are two or three times the original terms. Other stalwarts, like the century-old specialty-food store Russ & Daughters, survive perhaps because the experience of shopping there can’t be replicated. They also adapt; last year, Russ & Daughters opened a café, gambling that its newer, wealthier customers would be willing to pay more for something unique.
Berl’s own distinctive approach goes beyond selling poetry. Part of its appeal is that the owners outright reject one of the traditional aims of stores—selling as much as possible and making as much money as possible. Instead, White and Field want to embrace art and creativity as an enterprise—to serve as an homage of sorts to the spaces that visual artists and others founded in SoHo and San Francisco in the nineteen-seventies, which were a quasi-critique of the storefront—“a counterreaction against capitalism,” White said.
Although he knows that poetry is itself a niche, White doesn’t consider Berl’s to be niche retail, per se. Niche stores are often gimmicky, for one, and poetry shops would be on the losing end of the trend from a purely real-estate perspective—brokers certainly aren’t closing deals based on their presence in a neighborhood. But White is also aware that “waves of gentrification,” as he put it, have helped to keep the store afloat. The countercultural appeal of poetry, like that of art, makes it a relatively easy sell to a population willing to shop for things that they don’t necessarily need but might covet as a form of self-expression. That niche is centuries old, and enduring.