This Women’s History Month, Downtown Brooklyn Partnership is proud to share stories of our many women founders and business owners. As part of this initiative, we interviewed Rebecca Cohen and Seema Aghera, co-founders of Brooklyn Book Bodega.
Brooklyn Book Bodega is a local non-profit that aims to improve literacy rates in Brooklyn and beyond. They started out in 2018 and have been giving out free books to community members ever since. A valuable asset to our community, Brooklyn Book Bodega is also one of our partners for the DTBK Presents 2021 event season.
DBP: How did the idea for Brooklyn Book Bodega come about?
Rebecca Cohen (RC) and Seema Aghera (SA): Brooklyn Book Bodega was founded by three moms and grew out of a recognition that our own children loved to read for pleasure and that part of that was about access to a variety of books in their own homes. We read the studies and learned that children who grow up in homes with 100+ books have better life outcomes. Despite the resources and wealth in Brooklyn—parts of our own community are classified as “book deserts.” Given the wealth in Brooklyn this just does not make sense. Every child should have easy access to books that he or she wants to read.
We decided to do something about it. Serendipitously, we connected with a friend who worked at a local NYCHA community center—Ingersoll Cornerstone Community Center in Downtown Brooklyn. They had received tons of books the previous summer and had a lot leftover. They invited us to help them give them away.
Literacy is incredibly important. If a child has the ability to independently build knowledge he or she is on a path to success in life. We like to think of it as a virtuous cycle: give a kid a book today that he or she wants to read and it is an investment in that child’s future. A kid who reads for fun, will read to learn, and a kid who can learn on his or her own has a world of possibilities.
DBP: What are some of the biggest challenges you face as an organization?
RC & SA: Time. There is so much we want to do and there are only so many hours in a day.
Funding: We want to become a Brooklyn institution—the organization that community members can reach out to when they want to break down the barriers to book access. In order to really become that organization, we need funding to help sustain the organization and hire paid staff.
DBP: When you started, how did you get the word out about your organization?
RC & SA: We began hosting events where families could choose books to start or grow their personal libraries. At our first event at a Downtown Brooklyn NYCHA community center in December of 2018, we gave away 275 books to 35 people. Fast forward thirteen months to January 2020 in which we welcomed visitors from all five boroughs and 43 different zip codes. On average, we give out 1,613 books to 216 people at each public giveaway. We walked up and down Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street papering store windows with our event flyers. We connected with family bloggers who spread the word. We connected with educators, after school coordinators, and community members working with children and families as well. We have worked with over 600 amazing volunteers during the past two years.
DBP: How do you decide which organizations or communities to collaborate with?
RC & SA: We started in Downtown Brooklyn as it is a central hub that brings people from all diverse backgrounds. One of the things that we learned from that collaboration is that we are quite literally stronger together. When we work in partnership with established organizations we are able to amplify our message and impact. You’ll find our partners are varied—we work with indie bookstores, libraries, local community-based organizations, yet also ballerinas, authors, illustrators, and even restaurant owners. We are especially thankful for the support of The Brooklyn Navy Yard, Books are Magic, and Ingersoll Cornerstone Community Center. We are a need-blind organization, so if someone reaches out to us asking for books and has a plan for supporting their community through access to books, we will fulfill their request. This open-door policy has paved the way for great collaborations and partnerships. We think of the Brooklyn Book Bodega community as part of an inclusive tent with people from diverse socio-economic, racial, and cultural backgrounds.
DBP: What is something that has surprised you about running this organization?
RC & SA: It has been really rewarding to get to know our community in a deep way. We have forged unexpected partnerships and friendships through our amazing volunteers and partners. There are so many great organizations in Brooklyn working on behalf of kids and families. It’s exciting to learn about all of these organizations and then figure out with them how we can elevate literacy together.
DBP: To what do you attribute your success?
RC: I think it is a love of learning and curiosity instilled in me by my parents and family. My grandmother was a lifelong educator working tirelessly to make sure that kids with learning differences had access to opportunity. Her work and actions inspire me to this day. Working alongside Seema has allowed more success with BBB than I could’ve imagined on my own. Having a partner in this work has enabled us to set a vision and set goals far beyond what one person could do on their own.
SA: My personal success is also because of my parents. They were immigrants, worked hard, but most importantly collaborated with others to successfully be small business owners. Even after they immigrated, they continue to collaborate and support their community in India, it’s so inspiring! Collaboration with Rebecca and the diverse community in Brooklyn has enabled us to grow and continue to bring to life our vision for BBB.
DBP: How can folks get involved with Brooklyn Book Bodega?
RC & SA: There are many ways to get involved at Brooklyn Book Bodega while including your family and neighbors. You can host a drive in your neighborhood with your kids and neighbors, fundraise for Brooklyn Book Bodega, or volunteer to sort books on weekday mornings at our warehouse in the Navy Yard. Adults can donate their new and gently used children’s books at one of our book donation locations in Brooklyn or donate through our website. The Brooklyn Book Bodega is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization and donations are 100% tax deductible.
DBP: Do you have any tips for budding entrepreneurs who want to start their own organization?
RC & SA: Collaborate! Find great partners. Bounce ideas off of one another and fine tune your vision.
Set a vision. Think through what you want to do (and what you do not want to do); then start small and pilot. Get feedback, reevaluate, and try again!
Pivot. Evaluate your vision, look for feedback, and don’t be afraid to change depending on what your constituents need and how you can better serve them.
Brooklyn Book Bodega recently collaborated with DBP at our Women’s History Month Event. Be sure to keep an eye out for all of DBP’s events by signing up for our newsletter and keeping up with our social media!