La Casa Azul Becomes East Harlem’s Little Bookstore That Could

At a time when many mainstream booksellers and publishers are struggling to survive, a new independent Latino-owned bookstore in East Harlem showed that community support can be strong business capital.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Jun 12, 2012

Earlier this month, East Harlem welcomed an unconventional bookstore to the neighborhood: La Casa Azul. The store’s mission is to provide a home for Latino literature in one of New York City’s most vibrant Latino neighborhoods. But what makes this store unique is that while big chain bookstores and publishers try — and often fail — to survive a market in which eBooks and Amazon reign supreme, La Casa Azul has so far been a success thanks to a groundswell of community support — and the relentless drive of its owner, Aurora Anaya-Cerda.

The small store is housed on the ground floor of a brownstone and named after Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s blue house, which was a center for creativity and artistic collaboration. In addition to the books, there’s an art gallery, backyard, and community meeting space. The décor consists of bright yellows, blues, and reds, and there’s a radio on the counter — all meant to remind visitors of the intimacy of home.

Anaya-Cerda envisions La Casa Azul as a mecca for writers, Latino literature and anyone who will enjoy reading a good book. I visited the bookstore to find out about her journey and how she was able to open up the independent bookstore at a time when so many others are closing.

Anaya-Cerda starts her story by telling me that her mother, an avid reader and lover of books, began reading to her daughter before she was even born. And Anaya-Cerda says growing up in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles, she was always surrounded by books and encouraged to read by her mother.

"Education was the one thing that my mom emphasized more than anything," she says. "As an immigrant from Mexico and with my sisters and I being the first generation, she wanted to give us a better opportunity."

Growing up, her beloved neighborhood was overwhelmed by gang and drug-related violence. Her mother didn’t feel it was safe for Anaya-Cerda and her sisters to play outside in the yard all the time and they couldn’t afford video games, so books became an enjoyable escape. When she began attending a predominantly white, all-girls private school in nearby Pasadena, Anaya-Cerda quickly noticed the difference in the neighborhoods and that she was being afforded a great education to which her friends back home didn’t have access.  

While she took advantage of high-caliber classes, including Latino literature, she wished her friends in her own neighborhood could also read the books she read. At that time, she discovered Rudolfo Anaya’s, Bless Me, Ultima, a coming-of-age novel about a young boy growing up in rural Mexico.. Her reaction was delight and awe.

"I always saw books and read so many authors," she recalls, "but until then, none of them really had my experience in them, or my last name or any last name that I recognized as familiar. I saw words like abuela, curandera, and I was like, wow. And because I valued books so much and I saw myself in it, I got this sense of pride that I never felt before. I read it in like 2 or 3 days."

Later, Anaya-Cerda taught English as a Second Language at a middle school in Los Angeles and often taught books that were written by Latino authors. When her class read Gary Soto’s book, Jesse about the experience of a child from a migrant farmworker’s family she had them write to Soto and he responded with a letter to the entire class. She says, "He included a picture of himself with Dolores Huerta which was even more special because we had just studied the United Farm Workers. So, the kids connected Gary Soto and Dolores Huerta and the movement and themselves."

This type of pride and connection, is what Anaya-Cerda says she is excited to share with the community.

As Anaya-Cerda ran out of Latino-authored books to read, she also became frustrated that there were comparatively fewer Latino authors to choose from. With the opening of her new store, she’s made a point of supporting Latino authors and exclusively carries Latino books. She remembers going to big box stores that had only one dedicated bookshelf for Latino authors.

"We’re more than one shelf," she says, "I’ve been able to fill up an entire bookstore and that’s been a really wonderful experience."

According to Anaya-Cerda, the more people read Latino books, the more publishers will recognize the Latino community as one that reads and needs more books. She plans on dedicating a space to titles that have recently been banned in Arizona.

But getting the bookstore off the ground wasn’t easy.

La Casa Azul existed as a bookstore long before it had an actual location. In January 2006, Anaya-Cerda started taking classes to learn about business and bookselling. In the first course, she developed a draft of the bookstore business plan. Then in April 2008, she launched as a platform where people could buy books online, and as a way to test the waters to see if bookselling was really something to which she could commit. Immediately people started calling and asking about where the physical store was located. And for four years her response was, "It’s coming soon. Trust me."

Anaya-Cerda says she didn’t have the capital, but she didn’t want to keep waiting until it arrived. She began an online newsletter showcasing author interviews, hosted events at different venues and sold books at different events and fairs. She borrowed event spaces in coffee shops, schools and other venues in the city, especially in East Harlem, where she had moved from Los Angeles. That’s how the Barrio Book Club, loved for its guest author participation, started at El Museo del Barrio.

But it was still challenging to borrow the money to open the actual store. In 2008, Anaya-Cerda says she went to several banks and agencies that work with banks and they all declined her for one reason or another, including the shaky economy. She was questioned a lot about the viability of a bookstore in a predominately Latino neighborhood.

"It was difficult for me to try to explain this to someone who I knew wasn’t really interested in knowing the reason and I felt like they didn’t necessarily see my passion and my dedication, " she says. "And I also never really had the opportunity to talk directly to the loan committee and talk about my experience. — as a teacher, as someone who has the education and business background [because] I’ve also worked in six bookstores."

She’s done her homework. For the past few years, in any city that she has traveled to, she has taken an extra day to meet with successful booksellers and learn about what works for them. She knows there are bookstores and small businesses closing, but her focus is on learning about those who haven’t and what they have done right.

In 2010 a bank approved her loan, on the day that she was to sign the lease at the current La Casa Azul site, the bank took back the loan and offered her only half of what they had originally promised.

"With all the vergüenza that I had, I had to say to the landlord, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t sign.’ And I was devastated because that meant he could have easily called the next person in line and said, ‘Aurora can’t take it.’ "

Fortunately for her, the space was never rented and a year later the landlord emailed and asked if she was interested in talking again.

The landlord called around the same time that Anaya-Cerda was launching the 40K in 40 days campaign through the Indiegogo crowd funding platform. He agreed to wait. Close to 33K was raised in 40 days. Community members then asked that the campaign be extended. In an unprecedented turn, Indiegogo gave the campaign 7 more days. In the end, Anaya-Cerda and the community raised about 36K, which was matched by an Angel investor.

It’s been a long road. Anaya-Cerda never lost sight of her dream. She is grateful to for the support to her campaign, and wants for people to continue to support independent bookstores, especially La Casa Azul.

"You don’t have to be a Latino to come in here and buy a book, you don’t have to be a Latino to have your book here, if you are passionate about the culture, if you’re a local writer, if you love to read, we have a place here for you."