Marisa Nuñez, Marisa Hair, Long Island City, NY

Vina Castillo

Kew and Willow Books

Queens, New York

“The loan process was very thorough and helped us organize aspects of our business we hadn’t previously thought of. We feel very lucky.” –Vina Castillo


Vina had always been an avid reader. Studying English and Publishing in college, she had always known she wanted to work with books in some capacity. It wasn’t until working as a supervisor at a now-closed Barnes & Noble in Queens that she realized her passion for bookstores. “Nothing brought me more joy than putting a book into a customer’s hands and then having that customer come back and share how much they loved that book.”

Vina left for another job, but her love of bookstores remained. After seeing all but one store in her borough of 2.4 million people close, she soon realized just how significant the need in her community was to fill that space. Vina approached two of her former Barnes & Noble coworkers, Holly and Natalie, with the idea that they open a bookstore of their own. Holly and Natalie agreed, and the three women began taking the first steps toward opening Kew and Willow Books.

Vina, Holly and Natalie started with their community. “It was great to see the interest and support from the very start.” While they had launched a crowdfunding campaign that helped them secure a location and begin renovations, they still needed financial assistance to open. They didn’t qualify for any of the bank loans they applied for. They did qualify for a loan with Ascendus.

Ascendus’ SBA 7a Community Advantage loan allowed them to purchase their initial inventory of books as well as other essential expenses, including their store sign and promotion. “The loan process was very thorough and helped us organize aspects of our business we hadn’t previously thought of. We feel very lucky.” Without access to capital, their doors wouldn’t have opened.


For Vina, who now works at the bookstore full-time, the goal is to serve not only her community, but her borough. “Queens deserves more bookstores. A part of me has always known that I wouldn’t stop at just one bookshop. We’ve had countless requests to open another one in Jackson Heights. So hopefully in five years, that comes to fruition.”

Yet right now, the three women are focusing on short-term goals of serving their neighborhood, providing a much-needed cultural space that would not exist otherwise. Vina, Holly and Natalie offer regular community events to residents of all ages, including open-mic nights and children’s events, all of which have been attended by a full house. The bookstore also showcases local talent from the borough that cannot be found online and has formed relationships with nearby schools to supply books in bulk. Vina also makes it a priority to make sure minority writers are showcased on their shelves. “It’s important to remind ourselves why we got in this business in the first place and to appreciate each individual accomplishment.”

Vina, Holly and Natalie celebrated the one-year anniversary of their grand opening in October 2018.

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