After a long wait, the Center for Fiction is finally opening its doors in Fort Greene.
The nonprofit has moved to an 18,000-square-foot space at 15 Lafayette Avenue, joining an increasing arts-centric neighborhood — BAM, Mark Morris Dance Group and Theatre for a New Audience are all nearby — that will certainly boost the organization’s profile.
“We didn’t feel that we were in a culturally vibrant place,” says Noreen Tomassi, the Director of the Center for Fiction, about their old location on East 47th Street in midtown Manhattan. “What I really wanted was to find what I felt was the next burgeoning cultural center in New York.”
After looking around at a number of locations, they found that in Fort Greene. “There are people who live in midtown Manhattan, but you don’t have any sense of community there,” Tomassi says. “Being part of the Brooklyn cultural scene is exciting.”
During a tour last week, Brownstoner got a sneak peek at the new digs. The additional space will offer a cafe, a larger bookshop and an auditorium for live events on the ground floor. A bigger reading room, more classrooms and space for writers are located on the second floor, while the center’s lending library, a collection of over 60,000 books, snakes through the entire building.
Tomassi says she is also excited about the new state-of-the-art facilities, which allows them to record and live stream events, produce podcasts and shows films. “We have the capacity to look at the art of fiction in a lot of different formats,” she says.
It’s a long way from the institution’s humble beginnings. When the Center for Fiction opened in 1821, dues were only $2 a year. Founded as a membership library meant to prepare young men for the mercantile trade, it bounced around a number of Manhattan locations and hosted writers such as Mark Twain, who in 1872 attracted a crowd so large for a lecture that he had to do it twice in one night — the second time around for the angry audience that had been turned away at the door.
The Mercantile Library of New York changed its name to the Mercantile Library Center for Fiction and renewed its longstanding focus on fiction in 2005. By then, it was located on 47th Street, in a building the organization sold nine years later for $18 million. When the possibility of a sale was announced, people began to worry. The center’s events, always well attended, provided access to a world of literature unattainable elsewhere. There were reading groups, space for writers to work, the extensive circulating library and a bookstore. Would it all disappear?
Not quite. They will be kicking things off with a big opening night party on February 19, which will feature live music, readings and door prizes. While they are looking to the future, Tomassi says their mission remains the same. “Books will always be important to us.”
[Photos by Craig Hubert, unless otherwise noted]
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