Rewriting the Bookshop

One by one, independent bookstores are dying off. Writer’s Block aims to change that narrative. 

Scott Seeley and Drew Cohen are putting the finishing touches on Writer’s Block, set to open next month on Fremont East. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Scott Seeley and Drew Cohen are putting the finishing touches on Writer’s Block, set to open next month on Fremont East. | Photo by Jon Estrada

Scott Seeley is hesitant to talk about Writer’s Block. I’m interviewing him and his partner, Drew Cohen, literally minutes after they’ve spoken to the contractor about the projected early October opening of their Fremont East bookshop and classroom space. As a result, Seeley is choosing his words carefully.

“I’m gonna talk broadly because the space, No. 1, needs to speak for itself,” Seeley says. “A lot of it is gonna be tied into how it looks, the atmosphere—and it’s hard to put that in words. The other thing is that we still have a month and a half, and who knows? By then, we might decide we want to build cars in there.”

It seems unlikely that Seeley, co-founder and former executive director of 826NYC—a nonprofit that teaches creative writing to kids, and creative writing instruction to teachers—would come all the way to Las Vegas simply to build a car showroom at 1020 Fremont Street, just across the street from Atomic Liquors. The thing is, though, I believe Seeley could do it. The former New Yorker is a maker, with a highly discerning eye for design; he’s creating the interior of Writer’s Block himself, working from both schematics and scale models he made with his own hands. If he decides to chuck the original concept and create a space for DeLoreans, I’d say yeah, he could.

Luckily for us, though, Seeley and Cohen are sticking to their plans to build a bookshop in the 2,500-square-foot space. Well, kinda. The front of the house will be called “Book Shop,” which Seeley has deliberately split into two words to evoke a cross between Geppetto’s workshop and a mad scientist’s lair.

“We will literally have a book-making area,” Seeley says. “I’ve got a workbench, tools and, hopefully, we have a full letterpress coming. We’ll have book presses, screen-printing equipment … all kinds of machinery that we can hand-make books with. That will be a huge component of the store, mixed in with new books and whatever we think is fun and cool.”

“We often talk about it as being like waiting in line for a ride at Disney World, where there are articles of use all over the place that tell a story,” Cohen says. But where you’re not allowed to touch the books and other items sitting on tables in the lobby of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Book Shop encourages a hands-on approach. You become part of the story the second you walk in the door. “Here, you are the lobby,” Cohen adds, grinning.

And those folks behind the counter aren’t robotic pirates; they’re flesh-and-blood readers, like you.

“The independent bookstore people we’ve talked to, the ones who have had successful shops … it comes from a curatorial aspect,” Seeley says. “You don’t walk into a Barnes & Noble to hang out with the staff. That would be kinda weird. I worked for this record store in Connecticut for a while that exclusively sold jazz, and most of the customers came in just to talk to the staff, hang out and browse the new records. You want that kind of community aspect to it.”

Now my head is blowing up—and it’s not just because Seeley and Cohen know about, and share, my unabashed love of Disney’s theme parks. What they’re talking about is rewriting the old bookshop model to give you an active role in the world of literature: to put the ink on your fingers and your name on the “about” page. In an era when the act of finding new books to read is becoming an increasingly cold and detached endeavor—one that’s relegated either to digital tablets or to shopping though the sterile window of Amazon—Writer’s Block Book Shop aims to reconnect us with the stuff that made us fall in love with books in the first place.

By the way: Cohen is in the process of ordering Writer’s Block’s books right now, and he hints that they’ll predominantly start with four different varieties: nonfiction, business, art and design, and children’s books. But even that can change before opening day: “If we see a great demand for horror Westerns, then we’ll bulk up,” Seeley says.

“I want people to tell me, ‘You don’t have this and you need to have this,’ and I’ll order it,” Cohen says. “I want this store to be like St. Mark’s Bookshop in New York. … Those were the places where I would go and find out about authors or genres I didn’t know existed, and it really helped inform my taste.”

The big difference: It’ll be St. Mark’s Bookshop with a letterpress. Maybe that’s the only way an independent bookstore can survive these days: by cultivating something akin to a themed environment, and by offering a bunch of merchandise that isn’t books at all. But we haven’t yet talked about the back half of Writer’s Block, which is accessed through a “transitional space” that Seeley is “not even gonna attempt to describe” at this time. It’s the classroom/studio area, which he’s currently calling “The Codex.”

The Codex will be a large, open space where Writer’s Block will hold its workshops, most of which will presumably be aimed at young writers in the 6- to 18-year-old range. They might do some book-making courses for adults, too, but again, Seeley is reluctant to skip to the back of the book. He wants the living characters of Writer’s Block to determine how this story unfolds.

“There will be some writing element” to the classes, Seeley says, “but beyond that—sky’s the limit.” He imagines an area where they can make not just books, but films, recordings, plays and anything else that the kids are excited to try.

“There will be a lot of theater, a lot of silliness … but at the end of the workshop, each student will leave with a book that they’ve made themselves,” Seeley says.

But all of this—and the other amazing stuff that Seeley doesn’t want to put on the record just yet—is all happening after Writer’s Block opens its doors in October. Right now, with the contractor’s words fresh in their ears, that’s the only chapter Scott Seeley and Drew Cohen are interested in finishing.

“We’ll crawl before we walk, and walk before we run,” Cohen says. And everything will be all write in the end.

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