Navani Knows Books: Interview with Aurora Anaya-Cerda, founder of La Casa Azul Bookstore

Growing up I spent a lot of my free time in the library, where my love for books was born. I was always searching for stories about people like me – Latinos. Sadly, those stories were few and far between which left me feeling like an outsider much of my life. I was elated to find Down These Mean Streets on my high school reading list. Then, it was Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir “When I was Puerto Rican” and that was all I had to go on until I took advanced Latino literature courses in college. Seems like I was not the only one puzzled and disheartened by this dilemma. On the West Coast Chicana artist and educator Aurora Anaya-Cerda had the same question: why are Latino authors so hard to find? Her answer became a mission to make Latino authors accessible to our youth, which she has done with the opening of La Casa Azul Bookstore this past May. When I first vistited the bookstore all I remember thinking was, “Wow, I wish this were around when I was growing up!” I had to find out more. So, I caught up with Aurora to learn what it took to open El Barrio’s first Brick and Mortar bookstore for Latinos – a journey 6 years in the making:

What made you move to the East Coast?

I visited New York about a year before I moved, just on a touristy kind of thing – a friend of mine was speaking at a conference and invited me to come along. So, we stayed in East Harlem on 119th Street and I fell in love with El Barrio on that very first visit. When I went back home I told my mom how much fun I had in New York and how comfortable I felt in East Harlem and within a year I made plans to move here. There was no specific reason; it was just time for a change.

Why did you fall in love with El Barrio?

It felt very comfortable, I felt at home here. When we were staying on 119th every morning we would get up and eat on 116th street, but I could also buy tortillas and products I recognized. And the food is amazing, and there is so much art. There is so much life within the art world; I knew this was a place I would move to. I need that type of energy around me — I had that in LA, where I worked as an artist and educator my whole life.

 How did the idea for the bookstore, La Casa Azul, come about?

It came about in different phases, at different times in my life. I majored in Chicano Studies from UCLA and it was during that time that I started to recognize there are a lot of Latino writers out there that I had never been exposed to and I questioned why. Why was it that I had to go to a specific private school to learn about these authors? Why did I have to dig through the archives of libraries to find them? Why did I have to wait until college to learn about Chicano studies and Latino studies? So, that was kind of part one – questioning who has access to these stories and why is it that only certain people do. Secondly, I worked at independent bookstore in my senior year of college that focused on Latino literature. I was like wow, this is amazing – we have so many shelves of stories that people I know relate to, or I can relate to a lot of these characters and experiences. So, that was another hint, like oh the running of a bookstore, I had a sneak peek of that. Then, I moved here and worked at an afterschool program. One day on my way to work I picked up a local paper and read about an organization here in East Harlem that helps people open businesses. I was really intrigued so I thought what I would do if I could and the idea came back to me – a bookstore. That was six years ago. I called and enrolled in the class. That was the very first step.

Did your business plan from that course end up being your final business plan?

In every class we worked on a different element of a business plan so by the end you have a plan you can present to a bank for funding. That was the very first draft of my business plan it was like 15 pages. I look at mine now and it is 40 pages. But it has been a six year journey since then, so you add things and you change things. You modify things based on the market and people’s interests and my own interests and my own growth. That was the very first class I took of many, I later took classes at Baruch for accounting. Something I learned from that first class was that it is one thing to love books and another to run a business. People think I sit here and read books all day but I hardly ever get to read [laughs]. At this point you are running a business; there are so many aspects to this that I had to learn. I took jobs and internships at stores at this point I’ve worked at six stores before opening this one. I really just did as much research as I could. I invested in a website, I started sending out newsletters and meeting with authors. So, it’s been five years of growth and research to get to our launch.

Why open a Brick and Mortar bookstore in these times?

I sat and interviewed bookstore owners whenever I would get the opportunity to travel for work and I asked what works and doesn’t work. I look at the models that work, not the ones that don’t work. There are plenty of models of stores that work throughout the country and here in New York. There are amazing bookstores in New York. So yes, there are stores closing, just recently Hue-Man announced the closing of their store, which is unfortunate because they were and still are one of the models that I look to as far as what their inventory carries. But, I also look at stores downtown that are aesthetically beautiful, have so much to offer the community, and that’s what I look to.

What has been the most challenging aspect of the process?

The most challenging part throughout the entire process was definitely not having enough capital to open earlier. If you had asked me in 2008 if I was ready I would have said yes. But looking back, I am grateful for everything I went through. I made mistakes along the way but I’ve learned lessons too of things that work and don’t work. So, now I can look back and say, yeah in 2008 I was not ready. But the challenge has always been access to capital. This whole time I worked full time and at night I planned the bookstore.  I would either go to class after work or go home and research. Fridays when my friends were out I was home doing work. It was a sacrifice but it was well worth it.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of the process?

There are too many! It could be an email encouraging me right when I need to hear it or hearing from authors saying they are grateful for the platform La Casa Azul has given them. Or when a customer comes in because they just heard of a new author they didn’t know about – these are all the reasons why Casa Azul exists. Of course, the most rewarding is the fact that it is a brick and mortar in El Barrio and we offer so much in terms of our programs.

Why was it so important to you to open La Casa Azul in El Barrio?

I studied the history of El Barrio and it’s always been a special place to me and for me. Being of an immigrant family myself, I feel like this is the type of store the community needs. I could have easily opened and probably would have been a lot easier to open in another community, a more affluent community but I chose not to. I think this is a place that needs a bookstore like this. We are rich with the visual arts, the theater arts – obviously El Museo del Barrio is here.  The literary arts was missing and now we are here.

What authors do you carry and how do you go about finding them?

We have a very wide range of authors; most of them are Latino or write about Latino culture/ Latino history and the Latino experience in this country. We have the most recognized authors of course – Julia Alvarez, Esmeralda Santiago, Isabel Allende, Gabriel García Márquez, Junot Díaz – the ones that people would list as the top sellers and in terms of being most known. But we also have a very wide range of authors that are not as recognized but also really good writers from the Southwest and the West Coast who are published by major publishing houses. And we have a variety of authors who are self-published, who took a different route. Either they didn’t want to be published by a major, or went that route and they weren’t accepted – they went ahead and published on their own. We have a lot of books by self-published authors both from the Tri-State area and all over the country that hear about our store and send them here. We are that platform too; we have a whole section for local authors. We keep self-published and those from majors side by side and we give the reader the opportunity to see both.

We are actually going to start something called “Barrio Reads” and that’s our version of the best seller’s list. At the end of every month we are going to publish what books sold the most here at the store. What’s really great about this is it gives people something to talk about. You will see the recognized names on the list but you will also see authors maybe you’ve never heard of that are also selling really well.

What is the significance of the name La Casa Azul?

It’s named after Frida Kahlo’s home in Mexico City. She is someone as an artist and person I thought she was amazing.  This is my tribute to her and because I am of Mexican descent this is a tribute to my culture in terms of décor – the really bright colors remind me of grandma’s house. That’s why this place looks like a house.

What are your goals with this space for the future?

There are so many objectives, one for sure is to promote and highlight the work by Latino writers in this country, not just New York. Also to put these books in children’s hands that wouldn’t normally know about these stories because our dropout rates are still high and our college rates are still low, I want these books in the hands of kids. Another goal is to be a hub for writers. We offer the space for readings and we also have writing workshops. Lastly, to be a Mecca for anyone interest in learning the latest Latino work in this country.

Today: La Casa Azul is opening from 6:00pm – 8:00pm so you can pick up your copy of This is How You Lose Her, the latest novel by Junot Díaz . Book purchase (in store or phone order) includes a ticket to Junot Díaz’s book reading at La Casa Azul Bookstore on Tuesday, October 30th!

For more info visit the La Casa Azul website and follow on Twitter.

Photo via Laura Booth, 2012

Navani Knows Shaghayegh & Lacking Lips of Time

 

You never know what special person you will meet when you attend a wedding. While most people go with hopes of meeting a romantic interest, at my friend Semira’s wedding last year I met someone that would be a wonderful friend and spiritual comrade. Within minutes of meeting Shaghayegh I was in awe of her story – from being a censored journalist in Iran, to traveling the world (Paris, Italy) to being an entrepreneur. I also realized we had so much in common – i.e our talks about ego and love for writing. So when she sent a note saying she had published her debut book of poetry, Lacking Lips Time and would be stopping in NYC on her book tour, I was thrilled.

It is a beautiful book with important messages about speaking you truth regardless of the obstacles and consequences. She has faced so many being a woman journalist in Iran and not conforming to the rules she didn’t agree with. I urge everyone who can to come check out her poetry reading and book signing tomorrow in NYC.  Help support independent books and the emerging voices that need to be heard. Info is below:

Saturday, Oct. 29th. 2pm-5pm:
MILUX CAFE (in SoHo)
60 Wooster Str.
New York, NY 10012

Books are available for purchase on Amazon.com. There will be a limited supply available at the event also. For more information on Lacking Lips of Time add Shaghayegh on Facebook.

 

Navani Knows “Conquistadora”

I remember the thrill I had of finding Esmeralda Santiago’s debut book, When I Was Puerto Rican when it was published in 1994. It was eons ago, I was in High School and it was  a time before the existence of Latina Magazine or J. Lo gracing the Most Beautiful People list. That was the first time I came across any literature by a Puerto Rican woman in the mainstream arena. It was reading this book that helped cement the idea to one day tell my own story. Needless to say, I have followed Esmerala’s work ever since. Cut to 17 years later and Esmeralda is still at it, this time releasing a Historical novel titled Conquistadora.

To help promote the book El Museo Del Barrio had an event where Mireya Navarro, New York Times journalist moderated a conversation with Esmeralda Santiago about her new work. Being a long time fan I jumped at the chance to see her speak again. Though I was skeptical about her writing anything other than memoir, I left there with a different perspective and newfound inspiration.

Besides dishing on the storyline of the book itself, the author went on to tell how the idea for this story came from wanting to tell the stories of her family ancestors but because she came from a poor family that didn’t read or write, there was no documentation. Conquistadora is her way of piecing together a history for her family that just doesn’t otherwise exist using historical research. I was so touched by that, and what Puerto Rican doesn’t have those same yearnings – to find out more about where they come from. In her research, Esmeralda found out lots of interesting facts about Colonial PR – in how race relations were. How people with dark skin were treated, but never spoken about. For example, there was a 6 month time period where “blacks” were not allowed to walk on the same side of the street as anyone else (just one example). So much taboo still exists on the island about the presence of Africans in our culture. I think we all stand to learn a lot about the humble beginnings of la Isla del Encanta by reading this.

What I also found fascinating about this book was the time it took to put together. Esmeralda admitted doing research for this from before Google exaisted. Say What? I didn’t know there was such a time. I can’t even remember it lol. But that means a long time. And on top of that, her resilence – she suffered a stroke in the middle of writing Conquistadora that left her unable to read or write. She had to relearn how to do both! Many feared this book would not be finished ever, but she worked through that and here it is.  Sheesh, and I have a hard time sitting for an hour to write… now I have no excuse.

It was a wonderful, inspiring  event especially to a writer like myself. Thanks to all that were involved in putting it together – for free at that. Conquistadora is on stands everywhere now. For more info on Esmeralda Santiago check out her official website.

Check out a video of Esmeralda Santiago on PBS below…

 

Navani Knows How to be Infamous

I’ve loved two things all my life: books and music. Both always served an escape for me during my childhood and that still holds true today. While I attend many music events and many literary events, it is very rare when they ever coincide. Last night, for the first time they did at the book launch party for famed Queens rapper, Prodigy of Mobb Deep for his autobiographyMy Infamous Life.

I really did not know what to expect when I got to Powerhouse books. Normally, when I come to this venue for a book reading it is a small, low-key intimate setting. This was not the case tonight. Instead, it was the Prodigy show complete with cameramen and a reserved seating area. Hip-Hop journalist extraordinaire intervewed Prodigy  in front of everyone. Mobb Deep records played in the background while one lone mother read a children’s book to her daughter in corner. Bizzare I tell ya.

The night continued and Toure asked a bunch of questions we are already familiar with: his beef with Jay Z, his beef with Nas, how he hooked up with Havoc… all of  this I found unimmpressive especially as Prodigy answered PC for everything. What I did find interesting was what I learned about Prodigy as a man. That he had a fondness for his father despite his flaws (heroine use) and how angry he was growing up because of his fight with sickle cell. I also learned that Prodigy was a huge fan of 2 PAC and saw alot of likenesses in him. He also has access to one of Pac’s long lost notebooks which he treasures.

I’m standing in line to get my book signed and I am trying to think of something clever to say to P, something that would be like inside joke: only people that are true Mobb fans would get. I wanted to prove I was a fan of Mobb since they came out. Wanted to express how I argued against my colleagues on the radio show that Infamous was a classic album. I mean how could they deny an album that helped put New York on the map and whose language left an imprint on the Hip-Hop culture? And how could an album that Q-Tip produced for not be considered note worthy? I wanted to tell “P” how I scoffed when the man in the audience raised his hand to ask if they have ever worked with Q-Tip. Duh! I knew that, cause I’m a fan. What a waste of a question, I wanted to say and then he’d laugh. There we’d be, sharing a chuckle. But NO, instead I got to the front of the line and completely froze up and said nothing. Oh except when he was nice enough to say” Hey, how’s it going?”. I managed to grunt: “Hey,” back before having to move along for the next cusmtomer. Epic fail.

Oh well I guess in the end I don’t need to go around pledging my alliance to Mobb Deep. I’ll read the book in hopes of getting all the non-politically correct answers that weren’t given to Toure and simply because that’s what a true fan does.

Image via Google

Navani Knows Heroines

I’ve learned in NY that the most random meetings become the most substantial relationships. For instance, the way I met Glamour Mag columnist/NYU  professor Jessica Seigal. I happened to walk by her abode en route to my 9-5 one morning, when she commented on my skirt. She complimented me on my ensemble and continued to walk with me a few blocks towards my job. In that time we learned that we both are writers (SCORE) and exchanged info.

I didn’t expect to hear anything from her, when I received an invite to a book launch party/ walking tour she was participating in for The Heroine’s Bookshelf by Erin Blakemore. The tagline of the book is “Life lessons, from Jane Austen to Laura Ingalss Wilde” which intrigued me ( I am all for girl power). Plus, the idea of connecting some of these literary luminaries to the neighborhood I work in,  even better. So, I decided to check it out.

Turned out to be quite the event. There had to be at least 50 people (size of a small wedding recpetion) on this guided walking tour of landmark buildings throughout Greenwich Village. Pleaces of interest included: The street where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women (allegedly, research says otherwise), The place where Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter Rose Wilder Lane lived in bohemian splendor, the former home of Alice Walker and husband Mel Leventhal and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s house (the smallest house in NYC!). Jessica Seigal co-guided the tour which was awesome because she grew up in this neighborhood and had a plethora of fun facts to share at will. Like, the plaque on Cherry Lane saying it was named for cherry blossoms is wrong. It was a typo from “Cheery” Lane that forever changed history. In fact, many of the plaques have misinformation I learned last night. I was in fun fact heaven! Did you know Louisa May Alcott was addicted to morphine? Scandalous. And that the village was split into two worlds: southside was for the poor bohemians that didn’t play by the rules of high society (i.e. Edna St. Vincent Millay) and northside was for high society/ people with money (i.e. Edith Wharton).

I am sooo glad I attended this event (and not because of the free Champagne and Glamour mags, though that didn’t hurt). It ended up being just the surge of inspiration I needed for myself as a writer. I was feeling pretty lame earlier that day thinking I was wasting my life away at a 9-5 where people use the word “circle back” way too often. I felt like this is not what the life a writer is supposed to look like. But then, I came out and found a book that is full of insighful nuggets for moments just like this from women writer’s themselves. These women are truly heroines to me because they continued to write in the midst of their life. They had sucky jobs, families to tend to, money/marital woes yet in spite of  it all, they still wrote. To be reminded of that was a much needed life lesson for me.

 Thanks again Erin and Jessica for a great event and for being literary heroines as well!

Navani Knows Latinos in Literature

I first realized I wanted to share myself via the written word when I picked up Maya Angelou’s I know why the Caged Bird Sings. It was 7th grade and I read like nobody’s business in an effort to escape my world. A world I wanted so desperately to pretend didn’t exist. I saw the same kind of anguish in Maya Angelou’s book and quickly identified with it.  I put that book down and felt so empowered by it. If she could unleash herself freely like that and make me feel so much better, I wanted to do that too someday.

I first believed I could actually make this idea happen last week when I attended a “Latinos in Literature” reading event at Powerhouse books last week. There, Latino authors like Ivan Sanchez, Linda Nieves-Powell, Kim Osorio, Daniel Serrano and Joe Conzo gathered to read and discus their work. More importantly, they spoke about how and why they got published.

As I sat there and listened to them each read I got teary eyed, because they were telling a story that was part of mine. Ones I could relate to. These were people that looked and sounded like me and I could identify with, it is not often I have that opportunity. These are people I know on facebook and talk to regularly, that are from New York. To see my peers be able to live this dream reminded me that I could too.

Daniel Serrano stated that he wrote because when you discover you are a writer, its part of your identity, it’s who you are plain and simple. And you are frustrated as a person when you don’t write. I can attest to this sentiment.

Linda Nieves-Powell admitted getting her book deal with only 50 pages submitted.

And Joe Conzo exclaimed that your dreams can come true, no matter what they are. Just hold on tight to them.

I am so thankful for that simple reminder. And so thankful there are more Latinos gracing our bookstores now. Let’s make sure more of us will get the same chance by supporting them now.

Navani Knows Her Inner Young Adult

I am telling you November 4th was a magical day. Not only did my vote count and Barack Obama took over as president, I got to interview every girl’s dream man:

me robertpattinson

Edward Cullen.

Ok, so maybe that is only a big deal for teenage girls and gay men, but lately I’ve gotten reacquainted with my young adult side. With the wide spread popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s book Series “Twilight” getting passed around my peers and the comeback of 90210 (yes I watch it, sigh) I have def been embracing young adult entertainment. It’s hard not to. It’s a great escape to go back to those tender teenage years, when everything was so simple and so new. Having crushes, first kisses and falling in love were all so intense. It’s just plain fun to relive actually. So, when I kept hearing all the hub-bub about this book Twilight from my 30-year-old friends, I figured I should check it out.

It’s a fantasy story obviously – a high school girl falls in love with an extremely hot vampire, who essentially could kill her. Talk about going for the bad guys huh? This book gives that ideology a whole new meaning. As far-fetched as the whole storyline sounds you can’t help but fall in love with it, because it takes you through all the motions of just that – falling in love. As you see Bella and Edward interact it brings you butterflies. Turns out Edward Cullen is every girl’s dream man and dream experience. For anyone who forgot what it feels like to have that feeling, Edward will bring it back and that my amigos, is what the big deal is.

When I got the opportunity to interview Mr. Dreamy Robert Pattinson (AKA Edward Cullen in the movie adaptation) I was as giddy as a school girl (as were my friends). I mean seriously, who can resist a cute foreigner with a British accent??? Check out what the man behind the phenomena had to say here on Blogamole.