Five years ago, when she conceived the idea of opening La Casa Azul bookstore in East Harlem, Aurora Anaya-Cerda knew it would be no easy task. Despite the area’s rich cultural heritage, similar ventures have struggled in recent times.
The advent of new technology – think kindles, iPads, e-books – has played a major role, along with rising Internet sales. “The industry has already changed so much,” says Anaya-Cerda. “I still have each draft of my business plan – I’ve seen how it goes from 20 to 35 to 46 pages. And there’s no denying bookstores have closed in New York City. I’m very aware of that because I visited them before it happened.”
But Anaya-Cerda is in ebullient mood. In early October, her campaign to raise $40,000 in 40 days closed with around $36,000 in private and online donations. An interest-free matching loan from an unnamed benefactor makes a grand total of $72,000 – and Anaya-Cerda says “every penny” is accounted for. “The next phase is looking for a commercial space,” she continues. “I’m aiming to open in a year, because I know it takes time with negotiations, landlords, permits and all of that.”
Her mission is simple: “To promote Latino writers, writers from Latin America, literature in Spanish, literature for teens and bilingual books for kids.” Another key goal is helping people get in touch with their Hispanic identity through reading. With a résumé that includes starting an online store, organizing a children’s book festival and hosting dozens of smaller events during the last three years, Anaya-Cerda is confident she can overcome harsh economic realities and find a sustainable business model that serves the needs of its community.
On Nov. 8, the elders of that community were out in force at the Nuyorican Poets Café, a downtown venue that helped foster cultural identity for many Puerto Rican immigrants in the 1970s. The news about Anaya-Cerda’s fruitful fundraising is cautiously received. “I’ve been teaching Shakespeare for more than 30 years, and nobody reads anymore,” says writer and educator Miguel Algarín. As co-founder of the iconic café and a professor emeritus at Rutgers University, Algarín has experience behind his words.
Sery Colón, whose own Latino bookstore, Agueybana, closed in 1998 after five years in business, agrees. “Seventy thousand dollars alone might just go into taking care of the location,” says Colón. Amid escalating gentrification on the Lower East Side, Colón says the rent on his space spiraled out of control – and when Amazon came along, he “just couldn’t compete.”
Colón tried again in 2007, when he co-founded Cemi Underground with Luis Cordero. Despite offering a broader choice – art, clothes and other merchandise, as well as books – and occupying a prime East Harlem location on Lexington Avenue, the venture was shuttered after just two years. “We did a lot there, but people were not supporting books,” says Colón.
Ed Morales, a journalist who also teaches at Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, says the Amazon effect should be a big cause for concern at La Casa Azul. “The distribution model is similar to music,” he says. “There are no record stores – people want to buy online and get those deep discounts. Right now, it’s very difficult for any bookstore to get off the ground.”
In late 2007, two established Spanish-language outlets on West 14th Street, Librería Lectorum and Librería Macondo, closed within weeks of each other.
Anaya-Cerda’s online donation drive was widely reported in New York media, and even made it to the Huffington Post “Latino Voices” homepage. But it was an article in the “Daily News” on Oct. 27 that caused one El Barrio business owner to react with frustrated surprise.
“A friend of mine told me there was a woman doing a fundraiser based on trying to open up the very first bookstore here in Spanish Harlem,” says author Deborah Cardona, sitting behind her front desk at the Deja Vu Book Lounge on East 116th Street. After five years selling street literature in the local area, Cardona opened this physical space in July.
“So I found her number, called it and told her, ‘Maybe you were trying to open up a different type of bookstore, and that’s fine,’” Cardona says. “‘But don’t tell people there isn’t a bookstore.’”
Anaya-Cerda says she only learned about the Deja Vu Lounge during that call. And Cardona is clear that she is in no way against La Casa Azul: “The idea is wonderful. I want my community to get back to reading. I don’t have a problem working with her, and I am open to collaboration.”
Nourishing awareness of cultural history among the local population is a call that resonates with Jesús Papoleto Meléndez, another elder statesmen of Nuyorican poetry. “When I was a kid, there were no Latino authors – we became those authors,” he says. Meléndez has worked with students of all ages in El Barrio and beyond, and he believes the new bookstore can become a valuable resource.
“My generation spent its time breaking through walls,” Meléndez continues. “We created a whole legitimate literary movement. Our quest was to identify ourselves in the context of this culture, which was a big unknown. The people who came from Puerto Rico at least had memories, but I was born here – I had a different reality, so I was really displaced from our own cultural identity.”
Meléndez believes the Nuyorican literary legacy holds wider significance in today’s changing America, and for other Hispanic communities. “We made a collective identity for ourselves and gave it a voice, so anyone else could attach to it, which is what they’ve done – even Latino immigrants,” he explains.
Aurora Anaya-Cerda is an example of this trend: Her parents arrived in the United States from Mexico when she was 5 years old. In addition to her literary pursuits, she works at El Museo del Barrio organizing family programs. “I believe a big part of educating children is teaching them about their identity, or at least making them comfortable in knowing their stories,” she says. “Celebrations and traditions are very important for children finding out who they are, so that’s what the bookstore will provide.”
Meléndez thinks the adult market will be tougher to crack. “You always have to focus on kids when it’s about books, because big people are into their customs or habits,” he explains. “The only opportunity to change their behavior is at child level – and it’s like a shark feeding frenzy when kids see book fairs at school. So, let this bookstore be a new candy store for children in East Harlem!”