The Harlem Bookstore on a Mission - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Harlem Bookstore on a Mission

The Harlem Bookstore on a Mission

By Alexia Nader

SourceKen Hermann/Getty


Because maybe more communities need “bookstores” like these.

By Alexia Nader

Here at La Casa Azul Bookstore, which is so well known for its collection of Latino literature that it has drawn Junot Díaz and Sandra Cisneros for special book readings, the innovative mix of offerings has brought in a growing group of customers and helped Anaya-Cerda gain national attention. The White House has even honored her with an award that recognizes community-oriented entrepreneurs. “You can’t walk into another bookstore and see a movie screen hosting an independent film festival, but those are things that have happened at La Casa Azul,” says Anaya-Cerda.

American book industry vies for people’s attention in this digital age while trying to stem the closure of both independent shops and major retailers — R.I.P., Borders 


Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Díaz has given special book readings at La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem.

Source Getty

A growing presence of Latino literature being published in the U.S. is helping this movement. Alejandro Murguía, the San Francisco poet laureate and a professor of Latino studies at San Francisco State University, says the likelihood of works being available in both English and Spanish has increased in recent years. And while Latinos spend less time digging in to books than other ethnic groups overall, studies show they also contain a subset of very loyal readers: foreign-born Latinos. Indeed, this group rates library services higher than any other in the U.S. Booksellers, of course, are trying to turn more of these individuals into loyal book buyers.

But as Albert Greco notes in his research on Latino publishing, retailers have historically struggled to get Latino lit in front of the people who might appreciate it most. The bookstore as an art space/political forum/community group meeting point seems to be part of that answer. Before the artist Pablo Helguera got into this business, he fondly remembered used-book shops from his younger days on Donceles Street in Mexico City. There, books would be stacked so high, they’d sometimes fall on his head if he wasn’t careful, and the owner (a real character) was a walking trove of information.

When Helguera opened his own store, nostalgically named Librería Donceles, in a Manhattan art gallery in 2013, he stocked it with 25,000 books from donors back in Mexico City. Since then, he has taken the bookstore on the road to Miami, Phoenix and San Francisco, attracting a steady stream of visitors — up to 50 on a typical day — with a cozy atmosphere and an idiosyncratic selection of books, both of which have been praised by the art press and local news sites. His next stops later this year will include Seattle and Chicago, where he’s hosting tertulias, or informal intellectual events that range from the literary to the (very) political.

To localize his offerings, Helguera’s traveling tertulias have been adapted to each community that houses the makeshift bookstore. In Phoenix, for instance, Helguera perceived a need for the Latino immigrant community to discuss the debates over immigration that were taking place more broadly in Arizona. So he invited Latino and women’s rights groups to help organize politically oriented events. Those tertulias, Helguera says, served a broader social purpose of “bridging dialogue and cultural difference.” Of course, he adds, “it gives people a good excuse to come to the bookstore.” 

Grassroots, face-to-face organization strengthens all sorts of ties in the literary community, says Murguía, who organizes an annual Latino event in San Francisco called the International Flor y Canto Literary Festival. But this strategy alone likely won’t be enough to prop up a struggling sector. Which is why some booksellers, including Anaya-Cerda, are also trying to reach more rural-dwelling customers by selling Spanish titles and e-books online, especially after a Pew study in 2012 revealed that Latinos were adopting e-readers at a much higher pace than the U.S. population as a whole. “I’ve seen growth,” says Anaya-Cerda, who wouldn’t disclose her exact sales. But, she notes, “there is still a long way to go.”

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