A thriving bookstore in an unlikely place

By Alexandra Torrealba

New York, N.Y. – A splash of vibrant colors adorn the mural outside La Casa Azul, ‘the blue house’, a Latino independent bookstore in Spanish Harlem. Inside, in a welcoming space that resembles a home kitchen, 35-year-old Aurora Anaya-Cerda, owner and founder of the business, leans over the counter as she scans a customer’s books.

“How did you hear about us?” she asked first-time shopper Cristobal Guerra, 23, who commuted from Flatbush, Brooklyn just to visit the store.Untitled1

Since June of last year, this brick-and-mortar shop has thrived beyond expectation in a place that would commonly be labeled as a struggling neighborhood. With low literacy, limited resources and high poverty rates among residents, Spanish Harlem’s prospects for an independent bookstore seemed low in comparison to more traditional New York City commercial hubs. However, in adopting a unique business model that caters precisely to this community, La Casa Azul has beaten the odds.

Showcased on the shelves against the store’s brick walls, books are arranged into categories ranging from poetry to biographies. The store has its own bestseller and classics lists, specializing in Latino writers or works that focus on Latino culture. In a neighborhood like Spanish Harlem, where approximately 49.2 percent of the community is Hispanic, specialization becomes an essential part of the store’s business model.

“If you don’t see your stories represented on the shelves, it’s easy to feel undervalued and underappreciated,” said Silvia Galis-Menendez, 22, a senior operations intern at La Casa Azul. “We are here to show people that our stories are important, and that we are a vibrant and powerful community.”

Specialization also keeps competition at a minimum. While Anaya-Cerda does believe large chain bookstores are still competitors, she says La Casa Azul stands out as the only Latino bookstore on the United States’ East Coast, she says.

While Latino books are essential to the store’s thriving model, it is only one ingredient in its recipe for continued success. Since opening day, the bookstore has hosted over 200 cultural events, including summer reading groups for children, literacy programs, writer’s workshops, book club discussions, and even cooking classes.

“I sometimes say we are a bookstore by accident,” said Anaya-Cerda. “We are now a community space, a cultural hub for writers and readers.”Untitled2

On Wednesdays, the bookstore offers a Specialized High School Aptitude Test (SHSAT) preparation course. Of more than 200 applications received for a class capacity of six students, Ana Guaba, 13, is one of them. “An opportunity like this costs a lot of money,” said Guaba. “My parents are Hispanic immigrants and aren’t very wealthy, and I think we can all relate to that. This is a free course, we really can’t ask for more.”

For Anaya-Cerda, engaging face-to-face with her customers is also an important part of keeping the business sustainable. Serving as a ‘third place’, or an environment outside of work or home, gives her the opportunity to connect with East Harlem residents and shoppers at a more intimate level. “Our counter is designed to look like a kitchen. It makes people feel comfortable and open up automatically,” said Anaya-Cerda. “We have come to know them by name, or at least recognize them when they walk in.”

Fernanda, a pigtailed second-grader, is one of the store’s regular visitors. While she waits for her mother to get back from work, she stays at the bookstore to finish homework and read two of her favorite books. “Aurora takes care of me when I am here,” she said, smiling.

Placing a copy of the official events calendar as a bookmark inside every book she sells, Anaya-Cerda relies heavily on the marketing provided by her own customers. Local residents frequently walk into the store requesting calendars to share with neighbors or to post on their storefronts. Eileen Dengler, executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association, highlights the importance of these tools when it comes to maintaining customer influx. “For independent bookstores, word of mouth is very important,” said Dengler. “You are more likely to visit them if someone else gives them their stamp of approval.”

Social media has functioned as a similarly effective tool in fostering community support, even before the store’s existence. La Casa Azul began as an online bookselling business that only opened its physical location after Anaya-Cerda managed to collect sufficient funds via IndieGogo, an online crowd-funding platform.

Today, social media allows Anaya-Cerda to more accurately respond to the local customers’ demands. “We are putting out information but at the same time we are taking feedback, which has been helpful in formulating our model as we go,” she said.

As with any business located in low to moderate-income communities, affordability does remain an issue. Independent bookstores must charge two or three dollars over retail price to sustain rent costs, but La Casa Azul also sells used and donated books to provide more flexible pricing points for the community.

A more outstanding difficulty is attracting customers from outside the neighborhood. Anaya-Cerda says defeating the stereotypes of traveling uptown is difficult, but it is a challenge she is determined to overcome.

“It probably would have been much easier for me to open a bookstore in another neighborhood in New York,” said Anaya-Cerda. “But this bookstore is a place where we can find a counterculture and a different voice to what is standard. If we weren’t here, who would be?”

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