For Simona Blat, the plan was to move to Europe and open a bookstore. It was early 2021, a global pandemic was still raging, and Williamsburg, her Brooklyn neighborhood of 12 years, felt empty.
Like many New Yorkers during the pandemic, Ms. Blat was unemployed and seeking clarity about a cloudy future. “I took these daily walks during the pandemic,” she said, “just to stay sane.”
During one of the walks, she noticed a vintage clothing store on Driggs Avenue closed. The “For Rent” sign at the entrance somehow caught her eye. “Something inside me decided to call the number,” she said.
Her dream — the bookstore — always felt out of reach in New York. “Obviously it’s the price of rentals,” she said, “and a bookstore doesn’t make that much money.” But something about the empty space on Driggs suddenly made it feel possible.
The good feeling she had when she entered the first-floor commercial space in the three-story brownstone was matched by the good feeling that came over her when she met the owner Grzegorz (Gregorio) Pasternak. “He’s very old school,” she said. “He doesn’t even have an 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 its 30-year history. “It was mostly artists and people with a creative spirit who 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 nearby. “I realized immediately after talking with her,” said Mr. Pasternak, “that the space suited her very well because it had a previous artistic history. 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 tour the space.
“I would come in every day and meditate and anticipate 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 very nice. The experience was unlike any other host experience I’ve had in New York. Usually all they want is your money and they don’t really care what you do,” she said, laughing. “This was such an open and trusting experience and it matched everything I was looking for.”
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 per month.
Mrs. Blat opened Black Spring Books in April 2021. She had no investors or a loan — she spent savings she acquired during the pandemic, estimating it cost her about $1,000 to put on the bookshelves. “It was all very DIY,” she said. “I really relied on my family and friends.”
The inventory in the shop came through a collection she built up over the years, as well as gifts from friends and titles inherited from the now-closed 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 also have a solid collection of rare books. Mostly modern first releases, some 60s, 70s gear – stuff from the Beat Generation. There are cheap things, there are expensive things. I like to keep it a little bit of everything.”
Her first sale was to Mr. Pasternak – a vintage copy of “1984” by George Orwell. “He bought a $10 book from me for $40,” she said. “He told me it was for luck. He joked with me, ‘You have to make money so I can make money.’”
$3,150 | Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Simona Blatt, 34
Occupation: Bookstore owner, teacher and writer
About 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 lived in New York her entire life, except 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 book services: Ms. Blat said Spoonbill & Sugartown Books is a longtime favorite in the neighborhood, and she’s thankful they survived the pandemic. “When you lose places like that, you really can’t come back from that. The soul departs.”
The opening of Black Spring Books happened to coincide with the completion of renovations on the two apartments above the store. “I kept asking, ‘So, who’s going to live there?’ she recalled with a wry smile.
She had been in the same apartment for almost 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 or the kitchen now?” 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 found a building—not to mention a landlord—that she loved.
He explained that the third floor was rented, but the second was still available. After he walked her upstairs to see the apartment, Mrs. Blat recalled saying, “You know I have to live here, right? I belong in this apartment.”
But by Ms. Blat’s own admission, she was not a good financial candidate for the two-bedroom. However, Mr. Pasternak again showed faith. “I didn’t show him any proof of income,” she said. “It was really an honor system kind of deal, which to me seems like an archaic way of doing things — a dying tradition, just to take someone’s word for it. But that’s exactly what I needed.”
For the first time she has a home office, not to mention a washer and dryer. And there is the proximity to work. “I live above my bookcase,” she said. “There’s something ineffable about it and I can’t even put a price on it. I am really lucky.”
When she’s not running the shop, she teaches one or two creative writing classes at New York University each semester or works on her own writing. “I’m surrounded by other writers and artists and language so I’m constantly inspired.”
She makes the shop — and the patio — available to writers and other artists year-round, offering a sliding scale for the event fees that help cover the rent. “I have a lot of events and meetings, readings, film screenings — all kinds of things,” she said. “What I always wanted. I never just wanted to be a bookseller. I wanted to have a space for people.”
One advantage of living above her own shop: She never gets noise complaints when the nights are long.
“The fact that I’m able to do this and live like this feels too good to be true,” she said. “I just try to do as much as I can and enjoy it as much as I can.”