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March 29, 2017

Badass Ladies You Should Know: The Queens Bookshop

Kate Hart
Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa, and Holly Nikodem
We're taking a little cross-country trip -- from last year's profile of the Koch sisters, owners of LA's The Ripped Bodice bookstore, all the way to New York, to meet the badass ladies behind The Queens Bookshop Initiative. As all the Barnes and Noble stores closed in their area, Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa, and Holly Nikodem decided their side of the borough needed an independent bookstore of its own to fill the gap.

One $70,000 Kickstarter and a ton of hard work later, they're set to open their new store this year. Find out more about the challenges they've faced and what they're looking forward to!


Vina Castillo, Natalie Noboa, and Holly Nikodem
Kate: Describe your career(s) and/or current projects. What path(s) and passions led you there?

Holly: Take ten plus years in retail and combine that with a love of books, and you get the crazy notion that starting an independent bookstore is a good idea. The Queens Bookshop Initiative, though, really started as a labor of love that sprung from recognizing a genuine need in a community.

As of 2016 all of the big box bookstores in Queens (Barnes and Noble, specifically) were gone. Vina was the one to realize that Queens was left with one general purpose bookstore to service the entire borough (The Astoria Bookshop). She suggested we start our own, after having worked together for several years. Natalie and I agreed. If we were sorry to see the bookstores leave, then we would have to be the ones to bring them back. The people of Queens deserved a place to comfortably interact with books that wasn’t the internet - a place that could foster a sense of community or belonging. Together we formed The Queens Bookshop Initiative, rallied the neighborhoods behind us, and set to work bringing a new independent bookstore to the borough.

Since then we’ve met some of the most amazing people (a little nine year old boy in a park that told us owning books was better for the economy than borrowing them, small business owners eager to let us use their cafes for meet ups and markets, and fellow booksellers that are driving the industry). We’ve also heard some of the harshest criticism (e-readers are taking over the world, Amazon will eat us alive, people don’t actually read anymore...) What really drives me now is a desire to give our supporters what they’ve dreamed of and to prove our critics wrong. Also, books are great? Technologies and markets come and go, but books never need to change.

Kate: Do you have any (other) creative outlets? How do they influence/affect your main work (if at all)? (If you have photos/links/examples to share, that would be great.)

Vina: Besides reading and film photography, another hobby that has proven to be very useful in this venture is knowing my way around Photoshop. Designing and creating flyers for any of our events, or for announcements we’ve had throughout has been unexpectedly fun and an area I wouldn’t have thought twice about beforehand.

Natalie: I dabble in a lot of random things. I enjoy watercoloring, writing poetry, and Holly never has to try to convince me to craft with her. I think any work you do creatively fuels your soul and gives you a fresh and dynamic look at the work you are also doing professionally.

Holly: Outside of reading? Photography (cameras as technology are fascinating) paper crafting (card making, origami, quilling). I’m not sure if they influence the running of a bookstore, but they certainly make me excited for all the beautiful table and window displays we can set up.

Natalie at the LIC Flea
Kate: What's your biggest challenge?

Vina: Personally, my shyness can be at times crippling, but when it comes to our bookstore I have found that whenever we are approached with someone who thinks “physical books are dead/ebooks are taking over,” all my shyness is cast aside and I have a huge need to prove those people wrong. Books offer an experience that cannot be replicated, no matter how many apps or devices try to emulate them. The sense of accomplishment of turning the last page of a book? The atmosphere, their aroma, and the presence they have on a bookshelf? I could go on and on!

Natalie: Actually trying to live out your dream can be terrifying and challenging. When you've thought about doing something for so many years it can become a fantasy in your head to the point where you don't think it's really happening even when it really is. It’s given me a nearly constant fear that the floor will fall out from under me, that someone will sweep in and tell us “Just kidding. You aren't actually doing this.” But the community's faith and interest in our project has definitely kept me afloat. As well as the trust I have in my partners’ abilities and knowledge.

Holly: Trusting that I’m smart enough to succeed. I second guess myself, a lot. That and fighting the narrative that books are an archaic, dying medium.

Kate: Tell us about a time that you bounced back from failure.

Natalie: In my personal life, I've definitely had instances where I've been thrown to the ground and had to drag myself back up again. But with the bookstore, I don't feel like we’ve ever truly stopped moving forward. When we found locations that didn't work, we moved on to the next. When someone told us no, we asked someone else. When our feet dragged, we carried each other. We haven't bounced back because we haven't stopped moving forward.

Holly and Vina at BookExpo America
Kate: What's the best compliment you've ever gotten? Or Tell us something that makes you proud.

Vina: I feel the most proud when fellow businesswoman say “I love what you are doing.” I can’t express how thankful I am and how much that means to me, their support has been consistent from the start. As women, most of the time we have to rely on one another, safe to say they haven’t turned their backs on us and they always have advice and offer a helping hand.

Natalie: I think we can all agree that it warms our hearts and gives us such encouragement when people tell us they can't wait to come to our store, and when people tell us that we are doing an important thing for our community. A friend of mine told me just the other day that this project will genuinely positively impact our community and that we were doing something that really mattered. It was so heartening to hear that from someone outside of this.

Holly: We got to meet the author Louise Penny and when she found out what we were doing she took my hands in hers and said “You are my heroes.”

Kate: Did you have any defining moments that galvanized your understanding of and/or commitment to feminism? How does it inform/inspire your work? 

Vina: I distinctly remember right before we launched our Kickstarter, we met up at a cafe to brainstorm our campaign and right next to us were about 4-5 men seated and they happened to overhear us. They then proceed to tell us “how we should do this” or ways they think we haven’t thought through our approach… It hit me not only how basic their advice was but how they were wary of our success as such “young women.” Months later I hope they saw that we did achieve what we worked so hard for and that our gender didn’t hinder our success. I can only continue to hope that even under our current political climate, women everywhere have that same chance to prove what they can accomplish.

Holly: There was never that “ah-ha” moment of understanding feminism for me. As an only child to a single mother, the expectation of respect and equality, regardless of gender, was the norm for me. It wasn’t until I was older, probably college, when questions started to begin with “How does it feel to be a woman in ___” that an understanding of feminism started to creep in. That understanding is still creeping and evolving in my mind. I don’t think it’ll ever galvanize; it will always be a changing, growing thing. That being said, if the idea of being a woman opening a business and promoting literacy in a community is seen as feminist inspiration to some, I’ll gladly wear that badge.

Natalie: I feel like feminism was something that has always been a part of who I am whether I had a name for it or not. Every woman has experienced those little (and sometimes very big) moments when someone says that you can't do something, that you shouldn’t do something because you're a woman or because you're from here or you believe in this. And it’s how you react to those moments that define you, not the moments themselves and certainly not whatever label someone puts on you. Sometimes people have come to us and said that we are not capable of the work we are trying to do, that we have no idea what we're talking about because we're just a bunch of girls. At that point, it's just a matter of saying "Yes, we’re girls, we’re women and we are still going to kick this project in the ass no matter what you say."

Kate: Who are some other badass ladies we need to know & why?

TQB: Audrey Dimola is currently the Director of Public Programs at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. From the moment we started our endeavor, Audrey introduced herself and just brought this intense light and energy with her. She’s a poet and artist and has a love for her neighborhood like no other. We’ve partnered up with her several times and in doing so we’ve had the pleasure to witness her find a calling with Socrates and find an outlet for her creativity and drive that really benefits her community. She’s definitely been an inspiration to us. Plus she gives really genuine hugs.

Lightning round: Tell us what you’re…    

reading: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (Thanks Obama! I picked it up after he chose it as one of his favorite reads)
watching: Veep!
listening to: The xx’s new album I See You
eating: currently obsessed with grapefruits.
doing: working
wearing: all black
wishing for: our bookstore to open soon!
wanting: again, to open our doors.
loving: that I will soon be reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, I’ve heard nothing but great things
other: I feel really happy that we are part of this series!

reading: Red Rising by Pierce Brown and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
watching: Arrow
listening to: Hollow by Tori Kelly on repeat
eating: pizza
doing: waiting through jury duty
wearing: still winter wear, unfortunately
wishing for: spring time and our bookstore
wanting: a good long nap
loving: my dog, Kaylee, always
other: I've never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my life

reading: The Melancholy of Mechagirl by Catherynne M. Valente
watching: Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju (anime, go figure)
listening to: Hamilton (on loop)
eating: a lot of oranges lately
doing: filling out interview questions
wearing: my trusty green cardigan
wishing for: the final piece of financing to go through for the shop
wanting: to see our doors finally open
loving: the graphic novel The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg... it’s so good.
other: My favorite word is “doodle”. Really it's the oodle sound.

Kate: What is your advice to aspiring badasses?

Vina: I think Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it best: “I have chosen to no longer be apologetic for my femaleness and my femininity. And I want to be respected in all of my femaleness because I deserve to be.” A mantra we should all live by.

Natalie: Just keep on being your badass self and don't stop doing whatever makes you happy and helps your community.

Kate: What are the best ways to support other women?

Vina: Applaud their successes. If you have a platform, spread the word as a way to help.

Holly: Trust them. Ask them questions to learn from them. Expect great things from them.

Natalie: First of all, shop local lady-owned businesses. Second, never ever doubt the capabilities of a person because of their gender. Third, don't stand for the crap you see other people do to women, whether it's someone you know or a stranger. We have to lift each other up because we are all living in the same world.


Bios for the ladies behind The Queens Bookshop:

Vina Castillo: 4 years of bookselling/managerial experience (Barnes & Noble). BA in Literature and Publishing. You will find on her bookshelf: literary fiction, classics, children's/YA, and four different editions of the Harry Potter series.  Proud Queens resident! Serial music festival go-er, and bitten by the travel bug.

Natalie Noboa: 5 years of bookselling/managerial experience (Books-A-Million, Borders, Barnes & Noble). Lifetime Queens resident. Graduated from Queens College in Secondary English Education with two years at Baruch College for business. You will find on her bookshelf: science fiction, fantasy, an exorbitant amount of YA, memoir, humor, and an accidentally large collection from The Norton Anthology. Loves giraffes and puppies.

Holly Nikodem: 2 years as bookstore manager, 10 years in retail management with experience in event planning and niche markets. BA in Print Communication. You will find on her bookshelf: House of Leaves, Bone Clocks, and Brave New World. But also ALL the graphic novels, ALL the manga.

For more about The Queens Bookshop, visit their website or follow on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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