“Dang, that place is beautiful. It’s like, an art object,” says Junot Díaz. The author is speaking before a Jan. 25 book signing at La Casa Azul.
La Casa Azul is a tiny bookstore housed on the bottom floors of a brownstone sandwiched between a funeral home and a travel agency on 103rd Street, near Lexington Avenue. Named after Frida Kahlo’s own historic blue house, its décor borrows from the thick colors found in Kahlo’s more whimsical works. La Casa Azul is an independently owned and operated Latino bookstore. It is stocked with books written in Spanish, English, and Spanglish—classics and new arrivals all either written by Latin American writers, taking place in their countries of origin, or about the variety of Latino experiences within the U.S. Shelves are filled with novels, memoirs, and even erotica. A whole wall devoted to children’s literature focuses on representing experiences that often aren’t found in preschool-age books—a common issue in promoting early literacy is making sure children can relate to what they read—and another shelf is dedicated to academic works on ethnic studies.
It is a place created for and sustained by the East Harlem community. In the same way that a book is rewritten with each individual reading despite being the work of a single person, La Casa Azul can be a different place for every customer and artist. But make no mistake: La Casa Azul is one woman’s creation.
Her name is Aurora Anaya-Cerda, and she’s been in the book business and the Latino literary circle for quite some time. Last month, when Junot Díaz gave a reading for La Casa Azul’s patrons at P.S. 72’s auditorium (the bookstore’s basement was too small to house the audience Díaz attracted), he addressed her work by claiming no one should go through life without “one big project.” For most people that “one big [life] project” is raising a kid. “For real,” he said in his sharply casual voice, “having a kid who isn’t an animal” is as good as writing “like, three novels.” In a classic writerly move, he rambled on about family and faith to get at the miracle of what a thriving independent bookstore in the center of El Barrio truly is. That’s how he brought in La Casa Azul—Anaya-Cerda’s “kid who isn’t an animal,” her The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
In undertaking a project so comprehensive and multifaceted—a project meant to change the neighborhood in which it is planted—it is impossible not to have one’s own geography remapped. That’s another point Díaz was getting at, and something Anaya-Cerda has made clear in interviews. The business is personal, an old-school labor of love, and inescapably transformative for its undertaker.
Every bank Anaya-Cerda turned to refused to loan her the money she needed to start her project. When she finally got a loan, it was later revoked. Clearly, it was difficult for banks to imagine any profit to be had in opening up a bookstore in East Harlem. So she partnered with the local school to host seasonal arts-related events, sales, and readings in its auditorium until she could find a space to give her primarily online business a brick-and-mortar home. It’s been at least 14 years since the last time there was a bookstore in the neighborhood, according to Margarita Colon, P.S. 72’s principal. On June 1, 2012, La Casa Azul opened its doors.
It’s not surprising that Anaya-Cerda was an educator before she was a bookseller. Working as a middle school teacher in Los Angeles helped develop her drive to create a home for Latino literature, a place welcoming to the intimate experiences of discovery and memory. In her words, the impetus was to “create a community center in East Harlem for both readers and writers, to create a place where reading, writing, and creative expression is encouraged, and a place where ideas, curiosity, and community spirit are celebrated.”
To that end, the store hosts weekly book club called “Rice & Beans,” and promotes sales on its featured books. Its staff are all members of the East Harlem community. One of them first reached out to the store in order to arrange a reading from an academic book on the Cuban Revolution. She fell in love with the place and began to volunteer there weekly. That’s the kind of involvement La Casa Azul inspires. In an interview with Ploughshares Literary Magazine, Anaya-Cerda said, “Digital publishing has impacted the traditional bookselling model, but it is key for bookstores/businesses to be flexible. Being open to changing with the times is what will help La Casa Azul Bookstore stay open and be the place in El Barrio where convergence occurs, where people come together to discuss ideas, share information, meet artists and authors.”
What makes La Casa Azul so fascinating, and the argument for its success so compelling, is how effortlessly it exists at the intersection between business, political activism, and art. This is no accident. Anaya-Cerda has conducted interviews and remains in conversation with successful independent bookstore owners around the country, studying what they do to remain successful in a time when the data says that they shouldn’t be. Critical to this endeavor is making sure that the bookstore provides a service that can’t be digitized.
The community engagement that is so pivotal to La Casa Azul’s programming sends a political message debunking the myth that East Harlem couldn’t be receptive to a literary space. La Casa Azul has disproved those naysayers who expected the bookstore to tank before taking off, and this fact alone sends out a political message attesting to the benefit—and profit—of fully engaging a community.