Real Estate

She Opened a Bookshop in Brooklyn, Then Moved In Above the Store

For Simona Blat, the plan was to move to Europe and open a bookshop. It was early 2021, a global pandemic was still raging, and Williamsburg, her Brooklyn neighborhood of 12 years, felt like it was emptying out.

Like a lot of New Yorkers during the pandemic, Ms. Blat was unemployed and seeking clarity on a hazy future. “I was going on these daily walks during the pandemic,” she said, “just to stay sane.”

On one of the walks, she noticed a vintage clothing shop on Driggs Avenue had closed. The “For Rent” sign at the entrance somehow caught her eye. “Something in me decided to call the number,” she said.

Her dream — the bookshop — had always felt out of reach in New York. “Obviously there’s the price of rents,” she said, “and a bookstore does not make that much money.” But something about the empty space on Driggs suddenly made it feel possible.

Ms. Blat was particularly drawn to the obscured entryway to the commercial space that became Black Spring Books. She likes that you can’t quite see inside the bookshop until you enter.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times
Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The good feeling she had when she walked into the first-floor commercial space in the three-story brownstone was equaled by the good feeling that hit her when she met the landlord, Grzegorz Pasternak. “He’s very old school,” she said. “He doesn’t even have email. I love that about him.”

Ms. Blat learned that Mr. Pasternak had owned the place, a designated landmark, for decades, as he walked her through 30 years of history. “It was mostly artists and people with a creative spirit who had lived in the building,” she said, “which I loved. I told him I wanted to have a bookstore, and he was so supportive.”

They both took it as a good omen that Henry Miller’s childhood home was next door. “I realized immediately after talking to her,” Mr. Pasternak said, “that the space fit her very well because it had a previous history of being artsy. I liked that she had experience working in bookstores and that she was so excited.”

Before Ms. Blat even signed a lease, she had a set of keys and permission to visit the space.

“I would come in every day and meditate and envision things. That was a really crucial period when I asked myself, ‘Wow, am I really going to do this?’ I brought my family, my friends. That trust he had in me felt really nice. The experience wasn’t like any other landlord experience I’ve had in New York. Usually all they want is your money and they don’t really care about what you’re doing,” she said, laughing. “This was such an open and trusting experience and it lined up with everything I was seeking.”

For his part, Mr. Pasternak saw it the same way. “She wanted to pay month-to-month,” he said, “so I took a chance, and we’re still together.” The rent for the shop is $2,500 a month.

Ms. Blat opened Black Spring Books in April 2021. She didn’t have investors or a loan — she spent savings she had accrued during the pandemic, estimating it cost her around $1,000 to put in the bookshelves. “It was all very D.I.Y.,” she said. “I really relied on my family and friends.”

Ms. Blat’s father helped her build the bookshelves, and friends donated furniture. Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The inventory in the shop came by way of a collection she’s been building for years, as well as donations from friends and titles inherited from the now-shuttered Brazenhead Books, where Ms. Blat used to work on the Upper East Side.

“It’s definitely a pretty eclectic collection,” she said. “It’s 99 percent used books and I have a solid collection of rare books, too. Mostly modern first editions, some ’60s, ’70s paraphernalia — stuff from the Beat Generation. There’s cheap stuff, there’s expensive stuff. I like to keep it a little bit of everything.”

Her first sale was to Mr. Pasternak — a vintage copy of George Orwell’s “1984.” “He bought a $10 book from me for $40,” she said. “He told me it was for good luck. He joked with me, ‘You have to make money so I can make money.’”

$3,150 | Williamsburg, Brooklyn

Simona Blat, 34

Occupation: Bookshop owner, teacher and writer

On her origins: Ms. Blat, who was born in Riga, Latvia, immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 1 year old. She grew up in Sheepshead Bay and has lived in New York all her life, save for a brief stint in Miami. She loves Riga and visits whenever she can: “They call it the Paris of the north.”

On the best bookshops: Ms. Blat said Spoonbill & Sugartown Books is a longtime favorite in the neighborhood, and she’s grateful they survived the pandemic. “When you lose those kinds of places you can’t really come back from that. The soul goes away.”

The opening of Black Spring Books happened to coincide with completion of renovations on the two apartments above the shop. “I kept asking, ‘So, who’s going to live there?” she recalled with a wry smile.

She had been in the same apartment for nearly a decade and wanted to move because the open floor plan didn’t suit her. “It creates this feeling where you never really know where you are,” she said. “It’s like, am I in the bedroom right now or the kitchen?” She tried to move several times over the years, but never found a good fit. “Either the price wasn’t right or the circumstances weren’t right,” she said.

But now she had found a building — not to mention a landlord — that she loved.

The apartment that Ms. Blat moved into had just been newly renovated by the landlord. In addition to her shop inventory, she also has a large personal library. Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

He explained that the third floor had been rented, but the second was still available. After he walked her upstairs to see the apartment, Ms. Blat recalled saying, “You know I have to live here, right? I belong in this apartment.”

But by Ms. Blat’s own admission, she wasn’t a good financial candidate for the two-bedroom. Still, Mr. Pasternak again demonstrated trust. “I didn’t show him any proof of income,” she said. “It was really an honor-system type of agreement, which to me seems like an archaic way of doing things — a dying tradition, just to take someone’s word for it. But it’s exactly what I needed.”

For the first time she has a home workspace, not to mention a washer and dryer. And there is the proximity to work. “I live above my bookshop,” she said. “There’s something ineffable about that and I can’t even put a price on it. I’m really lucky.”

When she’s not running the shop, she’s teaching a class or two of creative writing at New York University each semester or working on her own writing. “I’m surrounded by other writers and artists and language so I’m constantly inspired.”

Ms. Blat’s apartment has two bedrooms, and both have a big window. She uses the second one as a home office space.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

She makes the shop — and the backyard — available to writers and other artists throughout the year, offering a sliding scale for the event fees that help cover the rent. “I have a lot of events and gatherings, readings, film screenings — all sorts of things,” she said. “Which is what I always wanted. I never just wanted to be a bookseller. I wanted to have a space for people.”

One benefit of living above her own shop: She never gets noise complaints when the nights run long.

“The fact that I’m able to do this and live like this feels too good to be true,” she said. “I’m just trying to do as much as I can and enjoy it as much as I can.”

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