Up on Sugar Hill: Word Up celebrates five years as ‘more than a bookstore’

Up on Sugar Hill: Word Up celebrates five years as ‘more than a bookstore’

Veronica Santiago Liu recalls being an arts organizer since the age of five or six. But it would be as an adult that she would take on her biggest project to date. On June 17, 2011 she opened Word Up Community Bookshop in an empty storefront located in Washington Heights, New York. Originally envisioned as a transitory site housing a literary fair, Word Up soon extended its one-month lease with support from the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA). After the termination of that lease, Liu and team raised over $60,000 via Indiegogo and moved into a permanent location on July 26, 2013.  

As Word Up prepares to celebrate its five-year anniversary, Liu reflects on the shop’s role in the community of Washington Heights. During its run, the volunteer-run space has hosted readings, concerts, art exhibitions and classes. In the process they’ve helped to redefine the role and purpose of a contemporary bookstore.

On May 14, the Word Up Collective visited the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling for a dramatic reading of their bilingual children's book, “Home at Word Up: A Story of a Bookshop in Washington Heights.” Check out our conversation with Liu about her inspiration for Word Up, learning lessons, their relationship with the Museum and what the future holds. 

On identifying the need for Word Up:

I had started an afterschool program with People's Theater Project that combined writing, reading and theater for teens and preteens. They would write their own stories and put together a performance and book. With theater, you only experience it in the moment, but with books you need reflective space to immerse oneself. We wanted to have the books available to the public. But after the show there was no central place where kids could tell their neighbors to get the books they wrote. I thought it’d be cool to have a bookstore very close to them, where these books could be available to everyone. That’s one of the main reasons why we wanted to create Word Up.

On adjusting to having a permanent space: 

One thing we’ve had to experience transitioning from a pop-up space to a more permanent home has been having a longer vision plan. When we were a pop-up, we would jump into action on a good idea and do it so quickly. But it’s also exhausting to have a roller coaster of things to do instantly. Now, in a more permanent space with a longer leeway, we are figuring out how to be more sustainable. Once we got the space we had to change how we thought as a group, to focus on important decisions that are sustainable versus what is urgent.

On Word Up’s relationship with the Museum:

The Museum is fueling my excitement even more than usual. I recently had a baby and it makes me feel like now is a good time to have an awesome children’s museum a few blocks away. To have a baby grow up in the Museum’s lab room with stuff to make and play with is an amazing resource. So now there is extra personal investment for me to have the Museum thrive.

On the future of Word Up:

We would love to own a building that is really a community space with a bookstore component. Right now we have a bookstore, gallery and retail all on the same floor. We could use a dedicated space for our spoken word teen group, tutoring, community meetings and art making. We won’t get there next year. But it has been in the works and on our minds since the very beginning, when we saw the response to what we had going. What happens here is so much more beyond books.


Up on Sugar Hill is a monthly blog post developed by the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling and written by Souleo. Each month features highlights from the museum’s exhibitions, public programs and/or blog.  

All Photos by Michael Palma Mir