A void exists in East Harlem, one that a book dealer hopes to fill in a way that reflects the neighborhood's Hispanic population.
Aurora Anaya-Cerda, 33, owner of online bookstore La Casa Azul, is on a mission to turn her online bookstore into a physical store.
Her campaign, “40K in 40 days,” asks people to make online donations to the business within a 40-day period via a link on the bookstore’s website lacasaazulbookstore.com. Anaya-Cerda says that an anonymous donor will match the total online donation up to $40,000.
Twelve days into the campaign, she has raised $6,035. Her ultimate goal is to raise $80,000, half from contributors and half from the donor, to buy books, shelves, equipment for an in-store café, pay for permits and secure the deposit for retail space. While a location has not yet been identified, Anaya-Cerda hopes to open La Casa Azul in 2012.
“For the community it’s very important to have a space like La Casa Azul,” she said. “We don’t have a space where people can come together and discuss literature, and be exposed to a lot of different writers that we do not necessarily know about.”
The store’s focus will be on books by Latin American or Latino authors that reflect the culture of East Harlem, also known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio. The store will offer books in both English and Spanish.
Anaya-Cerda says she understands the need for this niche. Growing up in East Los Angeles, she was an avid reader. But most of the stories she read seemed very foreign to her.
“It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I started recognizing stories that resonated with me,” she said. “Once I started reading stories that resonated with my experiences, I felt this different sense of pride and recognition for me and my culture.”
She also recalled how books helped her deal with the rigors of life in a poor neighborhood.
“Books gave me access to travel the world,” she said. “Growing up we didn’t have the resources to travel, I really couldn’t get out much, and our neighborhood wasn’t necessarily the safest either. It’s through books I was able to escape.”
La Casa Azul, which means The Blue House in Spanish, faces a challenging industry.
Under pressure from online competition and low sales, iconic Latino bookstores Liberia Lectorum and LibreriaMacondo in Chelsea, closed their doors in 2007, according to the NY Daily News. These bookstores were open for nearly 50 and 35 years, respectively. Even Borders, the second largest bookstore in the country, went out of business a few weeks ago, unable to keep up with the shift in demand to e-books.
Anaya-Cerda who is also the manager of family programs and cultural celebrations at El Museo del Barrio, a Latino cultural center in East Harlem,remains optimistic. She says to survive, independent booksellers must find creative ways to market and compete. Part of her strategy includes having a café as part of the store along with art, clothing and locally made cards and gifts.
She also plans to host book clubs and launch parties, a practice she started at El Museo that drove most of her online sales. She also sells her books at festivals and partnered with a local school to start a children’s book festival in East Harlem.
For at least one East Harlem resident, the prospect of a Latino-based bookstore is exciting.
“It's good,” says Erma Rivera, 65, who was born and raised in East Harlem. “Something to help my grandchildren with their Spanish. Their mom and dad speak so much English, but I want them to learn Spanish. It's an advantage to know both.”