The Bronx is larger than Paris (forty-two square miles), with one commercial bookshop and forty branches of McDonalds. Barnes and Noble closed the doors on its store in 2016; three years later, a Bronxite named Noëlle Santos raised the money to open the glorious Lit Bar in Alexander Avenue, a sketchy slice of the South Bronx where plastic bags cartwheel through the streets. ‘Bookstore & Chill’ the metal sign over the door says. On my pre-virus visit, books by Zadie Smith, Isabelle Allende and a volume entitled Stop Telling Women to Smile stood to attention on the front table. In the bar at the back, next to two sofas, I asked the friendly bartender for a coffee. As yet, she explained, the bookstore only stocked wine: would I care for a glass? Santos, who identifies as Afro-Latina, was stationed at the till wearing impressively pendulous gold hoop earrings. We talked about books (Santos’s Twitter handle is @bossynbookish) and about her vision for the store. Her mission is to ‘create a haven that inspires reading, encourages healthy social interaction, highlights diverse voices, and increases intellectual visibility in the Bronx’.
While in the borough, I made a pilgrimage to the childhood home of E L Doctorow, one of the finest 20th-century American novelists and one whose star – in the way writers’ reputations unfathomably come and go – shines less brightly than it once did, unfairly I think. As a