After One Year, Latino Bookstore Becomes Best Seller, Honored By White House

It has become an obligatory stop for Latino literati.

Junot Diaz, Esmeralda Santiago, Sandra Cisneros, to name just a few, have all been to La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem for signings and readings of their books.

And its founder and owner, Aurora Anaya-Cerda, was just honored by the White House as a “Champion of Change” for her crowd funding effort that helped launch the small business.  

The honor and the parade of best-selling authors at the small, modest bookstore – tucked away on the lower level of a squat building in East Harlem – is just part of La Casa Azul’s extraordinary first year.

“At this time when so many people are turning to the Internet to do their reading, ordering books online, to open a bookstore. . .is an incredible act of faith and shows her deep, deep commitment to both books and the neighborhood.”

- Author Mirta Ojito

The bookstore, a labor of love for Anaya-Cerda, has become a hub for many Latinos in New York and its environs.

It has hosted more than 200 events and programs aimed at Latinos as well as non-Latinos interested in books by and for members of the ethnic community. Latino groups in New York have used space in the lower gallery of the bookstore for classes, workshops and performances. Those have included poetry nights, film screenings, book clubs with names like “Rice and Beans,” writer conferences, and art exhibits.

Anaya-Cerda, a former middle school English teacher in East Los Angeles, said she has spent a lot of time recently reflecting on the bookstore’s success over the past year. 

She opened the store with a campaign she dubbed “40K in 40 days” that attracted donations from more than 500 contributors.

“It feels amazing,” she said. “It’s almost hard to believe that a year has gone by.”

On a recent weekend, Catalina Galiana, a 30-year-old Colombian who emigrated to the United States nine years ago, browsed around the bookstore, which this month celebrated its one-year anniversary.

With Latino music coming out of the speakers, Galiana stopped at a shelf that held a memoir by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and a book by Cristina Garcia.

This bookstore, unlike most in New York City, she said, showcases Latino writers and inspires pride in the culture. Anaya-Cerda makes a point of showcasing emerging talent, as well, featuring books by nearly 80 local Latino writers.

“We’re so proud of our culture, I feel like this is a great start for a community that is so big now in East Harlem,” Galiana said. “It’s really become a Latino family center.”

Daniel Rodriguez, 34, travelled to East Harlem from Westchester to visit the store and wish its owners a Happy Birthday.  

He recalled visiting it shortly after its opening, and seeing mostly bare shelves.

“It’s great, I think it’s wonderful,” he said. He stressed that La Casa Azul was more than just a business, but rather “a cultural center, like a community center.”

The Puerto Rican Rodriguez, who grew up in the same neighborhood in East Harlem that La Casa Azul is located in, called the bookstore “beautiful” and described it as “much more interesting” than its closest competition, a Barnes and Noble on 86th street.

Indeed, many people from the bustling Latino community around La Casa Azul said that the closest bookstores are about 30 blocks away and lack the focus on Latinos and homey feel that Anaya-Cerda’s store offers.

Writers say they find La Casa Azul a valuable place for connecting with Latino readers as well as with other Latino writers.

“At this time when so many people are turning to the Internet to do their reading, ordering books online, to open a bookstore is an incredible act of faith and shows her deep, deep commitment to both books and the neighborhood,” said Mirta Ojito, author of “Finding Manana,” a memoir that describes her life in Havana and her family’s departure from Cuba through the Mariel boatlift of 1980.

On a recent day, La Casa Azul featured a live performance by the Union City Music Project, a musical ensemble from New Jersey.

Christopher Vinales, 21, praised Harlem’s only Latino bookstore as “an extremely important asset to the community.”

Vinales first stopped by the bookstore a few weeks after its opening, and has been frequenting it ever since. He pointed out the unique atmosphere of book signings at La Casa Azul, saying “I go to book signings a lot, but the ones here are a lot more touching, everyone’s involved in the process and authors are very interested in the audience.”

One year ago, Anaya-Cerda told Fox News Latino that a major goal of hers was to attract children to her store and stressed the importance of literature impacting Hispanic youth.

Now, children are a core part of her customers. Fellow business owners bring their children in to look at younger reader books, many of which are bilingual. Teachers also bring their students in. Just last month, a college class visited the bookstore to officially end a semester of studying Latino literature. 

When asked how she has grown as a person over the past year, Anaya-Cerda said:  “I’ve learned to trust that everything is going to work out,” adding that she has “developed a wonderful relationship with a great team,” referring to her seven employees that “make this operation happen.”

She described her business relationship with the growing Latino community in Harlem as “a very special relationship that we are looking to build more and more.”

“People now recognize that there are many more [published] writers than they had imagined that are of Latino descent and who write about the Latino experience.”

La Casa Azul was started in part by a loan from an anonymous donor, who pledged to match up to $40,000 if Anaya-Cerda could achieve that benchmark via crowd funding.

Anaya-Cerda succeeded, which prompted the honor by the White House recently.

She says her donor is “very pleased with the bookstore and how far it’s come in the past year.” She also added, “We’re happy to say that we’ve started paying back that loan.”

For the future, La Casa Azul plans to run a summer reading program, a summer camp, and a continuation of events with local/national authors and artists for the duration of the summer. Anaya-Cerda has also started the East Harlem Children’s Book Festival, which features authors, storytellers and music for all ages.

“We want to continue establishing ourselves as East Harlem’s literary hub,” Anaya-Cerda said, “We have gotten tremendous support and acknowledgment from the media, but there are still people who don’t know we’re here.”

Anaya-Cerda feels that her work in setting up a cultural hub in Harlem is nowhere near done.

“It’s been an incredible, very memorable year, but it’s still just one year, and we hope to be here for many, many years,” she said.

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E.J. Aguado Jr. is a freelance journalist living in New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at: @ejaguado