Opening an independent bookstore at time when most were shuttering their doors against the Amazon giant might seem like a risky and even foolish venture to some. But not for Aurora Anaya-Cerda. The determined California native spent six years working multiple jobs before she realized her dream of opening a literary hub in the heart of East Harlem, New York.
“I wish every neighborhood had an independent bookstore. There are stories at Casa Azul that are not told anywhere else in the city; that’s what’s magical. Customers realize how important La Casa Azul Bookstore is for our community, how our buying power can ensure our stories remain in El Barrio. My dream of opening a bookstore has become my community’s dream.”
As a first generation Mexican-American, Anaya-Cerda understood the importance of having a positive role model from a very young age. To this day, she credits her fourth-grade teacher, Ms. Hurley, for inspiring her to work hard and go after her dreams. Ms. Hurley was a key reason that Anaya-Cerda decided to teach middle school English in East Los Angeles where she grew up. That and the fact that she loves books.
“I was a serious book worm. From a very young age, I was an avid reader. At home, we had books everywhere. My exposure to and love of reading and literature translated into a love of learning and school.”
The young bibliophile devoured whatever literature she could get her hands on. She loved the Sweet Valley High series and recalls that Where the Red Fern Grows was the first book to make her cry. But not until she encountered a trinity of books did she start to see herself in what she was reading and understand the impact this had on her sense of identity and belonging as the only Latina in her private middle school class.
“Like Esperanza, the protagonist of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, not many people could pronounce my name correctly. I related to her so much that I sought out more books with experiences similar to mine. Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya brought back the connection to my grandmother, who I hold in such high regard, and Rain of Gold by Victor Villaseñor brought it all together — my individual experience, my family history, and my entire heritage being of Mexican descent. These books were critical because I saw that I matter. The stories made me realize how important it is for anyone, regardless of race or class, to see themselves in a book and how that creates a sense of validation and pride.”
In the early days of her career as a teacher, Anaya-Cerda went to New York to visit a friend. She was in her late 20s when she fell head over heels with the city and knew it was where she belonged.
“I went back to LA and told my mother I wanted to move to East Harlem. I love her for saying ‘Go and live your life. You don’t want to wake up when you’re 50 and regret not having done something in your life ’. In addition to teaching, I worked two extra jobs to save up for the move. It was a big leap of faith, moving with two boxes of books and two suitcases, and landing in an El Barrio apartment with roommates I didn’t know. But I fell in love with the community and the historical connections with where I am from, so it felt like an easy transition.”
Anaya-Cerda’s first job was in an afterschool program where she trained volunteers to tutor kids with homework. Her second job was at El Museo del Barrio where she was responsible for programs targeted at schools and families and cultural events like the annual Three Kings Day Parade and Dia de los Muertos [Day of the Dead celebration]. She also launched the East Harlem Children’s Book Festival, bringing authors, storytellers and musicians into the neighborhood for one day a year.
But the seed to open the bookstore was planted during Anaya-Cerda’s earliest days in El Barrio.
“Coming from a childhood surrounded by books, I really missed seeing a bookstore in my neighborhood. I took business classes at night with the idea of opening one … I couldn’t stop thinking about it. –where it would be, what it would it look like. It was a constant dream for six years.”
So serious was Anaya-Cerda about opening a storefront, she interned with bookstores in the city during her free time, met with authors, interviewed publishers, and researched the independent bookstore market when travelling for work or leisure. In 2008, she applied for her first loan and was declined. This happened three years in a row.
“It was very frustrating because I knew my business. I knew what it would mean and how it would work, what I could achieve for the community. I just wanted the banks to give me the opportunity to prove how the bookstore would thrive. I kept my faith, but at one point I had to set my plan aside and consider whether the bank might be right.”
The respite didn’t last long, though, as Anaya-Cerda watched a friend crowdfund $80,000 on Indiegogo for an independent film she was producing. “It was amazing and I thought the same approach could work for me, so I launched my ’40K in 40 days’ campaign. I opened Twitter and Facebook accounts and started a blog and by the end of 40 days had raised $40,000.”
Even more remarkable was that an anonymous angel donor stepped in with a matching $40,000 grant, bringing her to $80,000, exactly the amount needed to get La Casa Azul Bookstore on its feet. Named for Mexican artist Frida Kahlo’s own blue home, Casa Azul opened its doors in El Barrio in June 2012. Located on the first floor of a brownstone, Anaya-Cerda’s bookstore is decorated like a home, warm and inviting, and complete with a checkout counter that doubles as a kitchen.
More than just a bookstore, Casa Azul is a space for the community to come together and share their love of literature, art, language and film. Anaya-Cerda partners with organizations, schools, NGOs, local businesses, artists and writers and hosts at least 20 events per month. This has not gone unnoticed. The White House recognized the 37-year-old as a Champion of Change who is “winning the future” with an initiative that moves her community forward. In January of this year, the bookstore got a big boost when it won $150,000 from Chase’s Mission Main St Grant.
“This has been a tremendous experience. I’ve learned to face my fears. I’ve overcome many challenges because I sought out support from neighbors, friends, and fans, my cheerleaders. Community residents have been some our bookstore’s biggest fans. I am happy to meet new customers and neighbors who thank us for being a part of the East Harlem community.
- Do your research! Learn as much as possible about your industry.
- Have a mentor, or several – people who know about the industry.
- Have a support system – friends and family you can rely on for support.
- You will make mistakes – learn from them and move on.
- Have fun – enjoy the journey!