By the summer he closed half of the business and planned to expand. Sawdust mixed with incense as it broke down walls, raised the ceiling, turned an elevator shaft into an office, and raised the cash register from under the stairs. His second-floor tenant, Walm N’Dure, expanded the fitness center he runs to the roof and configured a climbing course with nets and retractable awning.
“It’s always been a fight, up and down, lots of mishaps,” said George. “Despite all this, we always get up.”
Mr. George never expected to sell wordsmiths. He was born in Tobago and grew up barefoot and slept on the floor. His grandmother was illiterate and his formal education ended after fifth grade. At the age of 17, he emigrated to East New York with his mother Brenda and twin brother Derrick. It was a tough transition. One morning Mr. George woke up with a cold and told his mother he would go outside to find herbs in a bush, the place where he usually used natural healing methods, and they would cook.
“I have to take you to a drug store,” she said.
“What’s in a drugstore?” he said.
“Medicine,” she said.
He worked as a welder until he had a herniated disc in his back. He made sense of selling books on Manhattan sidewalks before saving money to open a bookstore across the Hudson. His first store was on Branford Place, where he developed a reputation for being reserved. On payday, Masani Barnwell, a kindergarten teacher in Newark, came in to buy books for students in her classroom with characters that looked like the children in their classroom. She wanted them to be inspired, so she bought copies of author Fred Crump’s series which retold traditional fairy tales with black characters. She saw another side of Mr. George.
“He wasn’t that doggone calm,” she said. “He approached me.”