By Alyssa Dearborn
When you walk into Parthenon Books, you are greeted by shelves of books, a comfy cafe, and a giant mural of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, one of three murals in the store hand painted by a local artist. Station across from the Landmark Theater on South Salina Street, the new bookstore is the first in over 30 years to open in Downtown Syracuse.
The store’s manager, Selena Giampa, hopes for the store to not only reside in the heart of downtown, but for it to become a heart of the Syracuse community.
“It has been a lifelong dream of mine to open a bookstore,” Giampa said when asked what inspired her to help open a bookstore downtown. “I worked for Border’s at Carousel when it was Carousel Mall for a lot of years. I’ve worked at Books and Melodies before it was Books and Melodies. I’ve worked at the public library for four years. So, books are where I feel comfortable. Combined with the fact that every time my daughter and I go anywhere–if we take a road trip, if we go to any towns–we always look for the little independent bookstore. We usually find a lot of really good ones in every city we go to, and Syracuse just doesn’t have that.”
Her dream to manage an independent bookstore became a serendipitous reality in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. She was laid off from her previous job and talked with a friend who helped her manifest her goal.
“I have a friend who is very into karma and all that stuff. She’s a massage therapist and she’s like, ‘come on in and we’ll talk and send something out into the universe.’ And she asked me that question that people ask: If you could do anything and money wasn’t an object, what would you do? And I said that I have always wanted to run an independent bookstore. We talked about downtown being a really good place to do it and I just didn’t have the means to do it.”
“The very next day,” she continued, “she was with Steve Case, the Acropolis Realty Group guy. They were looking at a space and at the very end, Steve said, ‘hey, I own this building and I got this great spot. I want to put a bookstore downtown, but I don’t know anything about books. Do you know anybody?’ So, when I say that this was dropped into my lap, it was literally. We put it out there and it came.”
However, the reality of operating a bookstore was something Giampa would have never imagined for herself a few years ago.
“I was in a really, really dark place a few years ago,” she explained. “About five years ago, I was in a very abusive relationship. I’ve suffered from depression and anxiety my whole life. It was not physical abuse, but it was very mentally abusive and I was very stuck. I was suicidal. I was hospitalized a couple of times and found a good therapist and began the process of rebuilding. It was really difficult for me to leave the relationship entirely and so there was this process of me trying to gradually separate and learn my own strengths, learning that I have answers inside of me, I just have to look for them.”
After overcoming several personal struggles, Giampa is now using her strength and sense of hope to create a bookstore where everyone can feel welcomed. And a part of creating a new space for the community involved joining Steve Case and Ryan Benz – the owner of downtown restaurant Oh My Darling – in their efforts to revitalize Downtown Syracuse.
“It was really important for us to be a part of the downtown revitalization,” she said about the collaboration. “We have this idea that Salina Street should be Main Street again. I’m old enough to remember when downtown was the exciting place to go shopping. And I feel like there’s a lot of restaurants, there’s a lot of boutiques, but there really isn’t anywhere on Salina Street where people can go and gather and get a snack and just wander around for a couple hours.”
“In addition to that, I think there’s a value to books and reading,” she continued. “We want to be able to interact with customers and introduce them to new ideas or inspire them to find new things on their own. As divided as we are, just all of us have kind of chosen sides. I want to be a place where everyone can come and explore new ideas or maybe get some information on their current ideas and not feel like we’re excluding anybody.”
She also plans to make Parthenon Books a place where people can not only buy books and gifts, but also a place where community members can come together.
“We’re going to try and partner with a lot of organizations, literacy groups, maybe some youth groups, LGBTQ groups, maybe some churches to have workshops and events that draw in different groups,” she replied, when asked how the bookstore will serve the community. “When we started planning this, we thought a lot about our customer base and it was like, ‘oh, there’s a lot of well-educated, single people and they live and work downtown.’ And then we started to really walk around and look around. There’s a huge underserved community that lives downtown and we want to be able to serve them. We want to be able to offer something for everybody.”
On the store’s opening weekend, Linda Lowen, author of 100 Things to do in Syracuse hosted an event for Parthenon Books’s grand opening. As the manager of a community bookstore, Giampa wants to offer more local merchandise and host more local authors, stating that, “Local is our jam.”
“We’ve reached out to local authors, we’re currently reviewing them. We’re going to have a program that’s consignment where we bring local author books in for a couple of months and see how they go. If they do well, we’ll bring them in. But we’re doing the same with local artists. We’ve got three murals by local artists. We’ve reached out to artists who do things like postcards and greeting cards and bookmarks and stickers. And our bakers, we’re using local bakeries for a majority of our stuff. We are light on local authors right now, I’ll be honest with you. But we’re working on building that. That’s a really important part of our store.”
You can visit the new store in person at 333 South Salina Street in Downtown Syracuse.
Visit parthenonbookstore.com for more information about events and more.