Small bookshops have been a dying business in the states, especially in big cities like NYC thanks to Barnes & Nobles and Amazon.com. But it seems that the number of feminist, Latina-owned independent bookstores is slowly growing and the timing couldn’t be better. Latinas have become more resilient, more visible, and more vocal than ever before and now they’re opening up bookstores that carry books written by and for women of color. The desire to read, find information, and be part of a community is there and these ladies are meeting it.
Panamanian-American, Kalima DeSuze opened the doors of her feminist bookstore and coffee shop, Café con Libros this past December in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood the Afro-Latina knew well before it became the hipster-friendly gentrified area it is today. The inspiration behind it came from DeSuze’s “desire to create a space that is centered on the voices and narratives of women, particularly women of color and global comrades.” She wanted to bring a sense of community to the neighborhood, drawing folks from various backgrounds and walks of life, while also elevating local writers and artists.
“Black feminism saved my life,” she tells HipLatina. “It continues to reinforce my reserves and provides guidance to be fully human. I learned about the Black Feminist canon from my sister comrades while organizing. I have the privilege to organize, to read at leisure, to buy books without a second thought, while many of my sisters do not. I’m seeking to bring forward what is largely unknown to folks who are not connected via the academy, organizing, or other feminist leaning spaces.”
View this post on Instagram
Amanda, Priscilla and, BESE…thank you for the force and integrity of this article. I’m humbled and, grateful. https://www.bese.com/meet-the-owner-of-cafe-con-librosa-feminist-bookstore-in-brooklyn/ Community, please check out the work and words of Amanda and spread the word about “BESE.”
Café con Libros is a small but sophisticated coffee shop/bookstore located on Prospect Place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It’s a cute place with a few comfy seats by the two windows, for customers who want to catch up on some reading while sipping on freshly brewed Caribbean coffee or cortado. For those who want a cozy and quiet place to work—there’s free WIFI. The shelves are filled with books written by female authors including The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisnero, Sula by Toni Morrison, Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness and Surpassing Certainty, Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes, I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Christina Lamb and Malala Yousafzai and so much more. There’s even a selection of children’s books catered for young girls—specifically brown and black girls. Between our current political climate and the #MeToo movement, this bookstore really couldn’t have come at a better time.
“It’s time that women’s stories be prioritized and that a space exist explicitly for and about women,” DeSuze says. “So many of our spaces are male-dominated; even the ones that are created solely to be for and about women. My women-only spaces have served as a healing tonic and, a reminder of whose shoulders I stand on. It’s important that more of our girls and women have access to such warmth and mirroring.”
While DeSuze’s bookstore isn’t the first Latina-owned feminist bookstore in NYC, it’s one of the few around these days especially after La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem closed it’s doors in 2012, in efforts to redesign it’s business. Despite the popularity of amazon.com and the closing of many neighborhood bookshops across the country, DeSuze believes having a feminist bookstore, that caters to WOC, accessible to people is important today. Her Afro-Latina identity also plays a role in why she decided to open a bookstore in the first place.
“It’s been important to use my voice to elevate and add to the current narrative of what it means to be Afro-Latinx. Often we are left out/and or completely reliant on others to speak on our behalf,” she says. It’s important that I claim my space and rights to be part of a larger movement and conversation. My narrative as a Afro-Latinx is complicated to some yet, quite simple to me. However, the world sees me as just Black, and I am proud to hold that identity while also asserting and reminding folks that I can and am both. And as a result, I hold a critical piece of the puzzle. My identity has made me who I am. So, opening a bookstore and asserting my identity as part of its narrative is my way of honoring my soul.”
DeSuze isn’t the only Afro-Latina with a bookstore in NYC. Afro-boricua, Noëlle Santos plans on opening the doors of The Lit. Bar, a Latina feminist bookstore in the Bronx, this summer. The upcoming shop will serve as both a bookstore and wine bar and will be the only bookstore in the borough since the Barnes & Nobles at the Bay Plaza Shopping Center closed.
“In 2014, I came across a petition on Facebook stating the Bronx’s Barnes & Nobles was in jeopardy of being displaced. I learned that our borough has over 1.4 million people, 10 colleges, and just that one bookstore that wasn’t accessible by public transportation,” Santos tells us. “I signed the petition, I got some friends to sign the petition, and I didn’t feel better. This scenario reflected a precedent of disinvestment in the Bronx—as a reader, it touched me personally—I was fed up. I resolved that while the corporation, landlord, and politicians were busy negotiating our lifeline, I was going to do something about it. That Barnes & Nobles eventually met it’s end (and was replaced by a Saks) at the end of 2016. Thank God I was working.”
Santos managed to raise well over $39,000 last year to get the bookstore funded. She even won second place in the New York Public Library’s New York StartUp! Business Plan Competition last year, winning $7,500.
She envisions the bookstore also serving as a way to break stigmas surrounding the Bronx. As for her Afro-Latina identity, Santos credits the project for helping her get in touch with that part of her roots.
“Honestly, I didn’t identify as Afro-Latina before this project. I had always lived in a state of identity crisis, feeling “too Latina” for black people and “too black” for the Latinx community,” she says. “The media began labeling me as such and I embraced it when the Afro-Latina community responded and embraced me. I finally feel a sense of belonging for the first time in my life. As I became educated on what connects us Afro-Latinas of different nationalities, it’s become so important to me that I use my platform to highlight our unique narrative and experiences … I greatly admire Amara La Negra and a lot of the Dominican actresses on Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black for their brave stances on representation but it’s not enough. It’s also my duty at the local level to ensure representation is reflected in my inventory, hiring practices, and marketing.”
Santos is currently obsessed with Latina writer Elizabeth Acevedo’s book The Poet X. “Imagine a young Afro-Latina coming into her local bookshop and having a resource that’s both engaging and helps her find a sense of self. Imagine after it, she envisions herself becoming a full-time poet and NYT best-selling author. Maybe she’ll want to become a bookseller and give her community the gift of words; a profession I never considered because I wasn’t exposed to it. Maybe her goal won’t be to get an education and “get out of the hood” but rather stay and build a business that is for us and by us. That is so powerful and that is the power of representation.”
Bookseller Angela Maria Spring was ready for a bookstore that spoke to her, not just as a woman but as a Latina. After 17 years working in the book biz, the Puerto Rican-Panamanian decided to open her own bookstore in the form of a pop-up bookshop that would speak to brown and black people. It’s called Duende District, it’s located in D.C. and it embodies everything Spring is passionate about.
“It was inspired by my too-few amazingly talented colleagues of color, all of us hitting the unforgiving wall of systemic institutional discrimination and rarely ascending to the upper ranks of influential positions like buyers and event planners,” Spring tells HipLatina. “And Duende District was inspired by love: love of warm, beautiful literary spaces, love of my fellow Latinx genre and all other communities of color, because we deserve a bookstore that is truly representative, warm and welcoming.”
Spring has always been an avid reader and lover of books but she struggled to find books with characters or even authors she could relate to. “I never felt like I saw myself in my hometown or in the books I read or the spaces we occupied. The first time I saw myself in a book was at 18 with Ana Castillo’s So Far From God,” she says. “I realize now how much we haven’t talked about the things in our culture, especially those of us who are first, second, third-generation, etc. But how can we talk about it when this country constantly tells us that we’re “other,” that we don’t belong in our own country, when all the spaces out there tell us we’re only an after thought?”
As a result, Spring is making sure her shelves are stacked with books that speak to Latinas and other WOC. “Every bookstore should reflect the owner and I’m Latina, so you’ll see books by Latinas everywhere in the Duende District locations,” she says. “And I want more books by Latinas published, especially in fiction. In fact, this February we launched the Latinx Book Group Author Series in partnership with Latinx in Publishing, beginning with Gabrielle Fuentes, then Daisy Hernández, and this month (April) we’ll feature Malka Older. The best thing about the series is that we livestream the event on the Latinx In Pub Facebook page so people can take part all around the country.”
For a lot of these book owners, it’s so much more than just selling books by women of color for women of color, it’s also about creating a community and getting people connected. At Café con Libros, DeSuze also holds events as well has hosts community book club meetings.
“There is a need for bookstores in communities of color,” DeSuze says. “There is a need for access to more complicated narratives at the local level. There is a need to heal our community by reminding them of their worth and value through endeavors like these. And, the stories we choose also tells the story.”