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!
Photo via Laura Booth, 2012