Adrian Cepeda was hunched over, trying to make sure a pink plank of wood was aligned before he drilled it into the wall. The sprightly bearded man, dressed casually in shorts and a T-shirt, was in the midst of an important DIY project — setting up his first brick-and-mortar, World’s Borough Bookstore, one of only three independent bookstores in Queens.
Cepeda seemed at home there. He had grown up on the opposite side of that same street. Books and reading have been the cornerstone of his life, but starting a TikTok account where he talks about BIPOC books and writers skyrocketed him into national prominence, with almost 35k followers. This sparked a demand for his unique curatorial skills and the books he was selling.
After selling his books online, as well as at various pop-ups and book fairs in the city, a timely grant of $20,000 from the Queens Economic Development Corporation allowed him to lease a brick-and-mortar space in his beloved neighborhood of Jackson Heights and do what he does best – talk about and sell books.
Hari Adivarekar of Epicenter-NYC visited Cepeda as he was busy setting up the final details of his bookstore, to talk about how he made his dream come to life.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Epicenter-NYC: Do you remember the first few books you ever read as a child?
Cepeda: The first few books I must have read would have been the Disney books. My mom was reading Lion King and Aladdin to me. But then she would fall asleep, so I had to finish reading them myself.
Epicenter-NYC: Why books?
Cepeda: This is the thing I was best at. I was really bad at math and I was not great at everything else. I was really interested in reading. But the other thing is the level of imagination. I love that you can just develop your own world. These authors and writers create worlds out of nothing. Growing up, my mom also emphasized that everything always comes back to writing.
Epicenter-NYC: Why are books by BIPOC authors important to you?
Cepeda: Growing up, I never read a book about a Latino character — someone like me, who ate the same foods and spoke the same languages. And it got me really upset because I never realized that after all these books that I read- and I was an English major so I read a lot of books- it wasn’t until my senior year that I first saw myself in a book.
After that, I started devouring all sorts of BIPOC books. Latino books first, but then I started expanding, and that led to me wanting to open a bookstore and doing TikTok recommendations.
Epicenter-NYC:How did the World’s Borough Bookstore come about?
Cepeda: I originally came up with the idea in 2015, when I was graduating. My daughter was born in 2017, and I knew I needed to have a store by the time she would be in first grade, so she and her friends could read books by diverse authors. Two years later, I started selling all the books that I owned in my house at pop-up markets. Now I’m opening up a brick-and-mortar location where I live in Jackson Heights with money I received from because two grants.
Epicenter-NYC: What did it mean to win the Queensborough Tech Award (Community), awarded by the Queens Economic Development Corporation?
Cepeda: It’s a really quick pitch video of who you are, what you’re applying for, why the community section and what you’re going to do for the community. And then if they pick you, you present the actual pitch in front of the judges. When I won, I cried.
Epicenter-NYC: Looking at the numbers and the kind of responses from the very beginning of your TikTok journey, would it be correct to say that there was a definite need and therefore a market for books that are BIPOC related?
Cepeda: Absolutely. So the funny thing about TikTok is that it gives me a national audience, so it takes me out of New York. That was the reason why I was able to get through the pandemic and keep it going. My online sales quadrupled. I went from a small Queens bookseller, that probably not everybody in Queens knew of, to being nationwide.
The Chicago Public School system started ordering from me, as did people from across the country. It showed me how spoiled we were here in Queens because we’re so diverse; people in other states don’t always get to experience that diversity.
Epicenter-NYC: Historically the world of books and publishing has been run by legacy institutions. As someone who’s breaking that mold, how do you see this changing?
Cepeda: I think TikTok and social media get a bad rap sometimes, but a lot of publishers don’t give proper marketing to BIPOC authors, and social media has been an avenue to do that. I’ve seen authors get their big break on TikTok and Instagram just by promoting their books; it’s free marketing for them.
The more people buy these types of books, the more people know these books are out there, the more publishing agencies will give BIPOC authors contracts and marketing — it’s a trickle-down effect.
Epicenter-NYC: What role has Queens and New York City played in your journey?
Cepeda: New York as a whole is amazing, but Queens is my favorite place to be. I love it here. I’m raising my daughter in the same neighborhood I grew up in; she had the same preschool teacher that I did, which is crazy. You take it for granted, all of the different cultures, food and languages, but as I got older I realized not everyone has that.
Epicenter-NYC: What are some of your favorite books set in New York City and Queens?
Cepeda: “The Girls in Queens” is incredible. I had an interview with the writer, Christine Kandic Torres, and we have signed copies. “Bodega Dreams” by Ernesto Quiñonez is also really good and it’s set in New York, as is “When We Make It,” a poetry collection by Elizabeth Velazquez.
Epicenter-NYC: What does the World’s Borough Bookstore need? What could our readers help you with?
Cepeda: Continue to support me, even if it’s not by buying books. Just come in, spread the word, bring your kids. Our slogan is “para y por la comunidad,” which means “for and by the community.” I’m nothing without the community.
The World’s Borough bookstore is located at 3406 73rd St, in Jackson Heights. It’s set to open its doors on Saturday, Aug. 5. You can stay updated about the latest news about the World’s Borough Bookstore on it website and Instagram.