Businesses across the city are closing their doors as coronavirus spreads, with all non-essential businesses expected to shut down. But bookstores are essential to many of us, and two Latina-owned bookstores in Brooklyn are finding ways to connect with their customers through bike deliveries and their online sales.
Cafe con Libros and Mil Mundos are in Crown Heights and Bushwick, respectively. Cafe con Libros tweeted out that you can still pick up coffee and a feminist book at their store, just make sure you take it to go. Mil Mundos has been reminding its Twitter followers that they can sign up for NYC updates on coronavirus in English or Spanish. You can text COVID (COVIDESP for texts in Spanish) to 692-692 to receive those city updates.
In recent years, a number of Latina-owned and operated bookstores have opened in New York City – the Lit. Bar. opened in the South Bronx and Kew & Willow Books in Kew Gardens, Queens. Cafe con Libros and Mil Mundos opened in 2018 and 2019, when there was excitement at something new in the community. A few years into running the business, the owners, both Latinas who care deeply about serving their Brooklyn communities, have found that sustaining an independent, feminist, Latinx-owned bookstore is a huge challenge.
Maria Herron is the director of Mil Mundos bookstore, which is collectively run by a group of about 20 people, all helping out in their free time. Each person has office hours, and that’s how the store operates.
“I was a collective member at Bluestockings Bookstore for several years, from 2013 to 2017. So I learned all about books, book selling, publishing and so I felt like a lexicon for that,” Herron explains.
That experience led her to feel like she could open up her own store as well.
“I don’t think it takes any specific experience except being a New Yorker [to open up a shop]. I realized that a lot of our neighborhoods are, like, not really for us anymore.”
Herron wanted to build a space where black and brown Bushwick residents could feel welcome. “What if a bookstore was for us?” she asked. She notes that Bushwick has a significant Spanish-speaking population, and so it was important for her to embrace her own Cuban heritage in the store, as well as the heritages of her neighbors. “Why would anyone feel invited to a bookstore where 100% of the books are in a language you don’t speak?”
She wanted customers from all walks of life not to feel pressured to spend money at her store, regardless of whether that made her store less profitable. “Browsing becomes a privilege that people are not invited to. Spaces like that don’t exist. They can’t afford to sustain themselves.”
Sustainability is a challenge also for Kalima Desuze, the owner of Cafe con Libros in Crown Heights. Desuze runs the store together with her husband, in addition to a full-time job at a city college, so she can’t be at the store very often.
“I think… just the fact that it’s just my husband and I. We don’t have a staff. So everything on the back end is me, and then everything that’s on the ground is him,” Desuze said, speaking of the biggest challenges. “Everything has to be on my plate. If it’s not on his plate, it is on my plate. And I don’t have anybody else to say like, Oh, can you take this off? You know?”
Desuze also noted the difficulties of marketing herself, especially as an Afro-Latina. She said that she wants to honor both her Panamanian roots and her blackness, but often feels that doesn’t resonate with the black community in Crown Heights.
“I get the question, ‘I thought this was black-owned?’ or ‘You’re black, why is your name in Spanish?’” Desuze says. “Why is this continuing to be such an ah-ha moment for folks in 2020?”
But through the struggles, Desuze and Herron are in this business because they love books. Herron loved reading since she was a child. “My first job was when I was 14. I was a page at a library. I would always just read like in stores, or my mom was a single parent when I was growing up and when she was bringing me in to work with her – my mom at the time, was an HR director for like a major mental health institution in New York – and I would just like read her medical textbooks. I didn’t even know what I was reading. And I just love reading.”
Desuze also has a deep love for reading. “I’ve always been a reader,” she said. “It has been my tonic. It has been my therapist, friend, it has been a vacation route, you know, so it’s just been the closest, most reliable friend I’ve had in my entire life.
Both business owners hope that their clients come in and feel at home in their shops. “I’m so surprised how many people come to me and they’re like, I’m looking for community,” Herron said. “We’ve had people come in here just straight up crying.”
Desuze says that the demand for shops like theirs is growing in Brooklyn. “I think there are more businesses that are popping up that are more value-based than rooted in capitalism. People want to do something for the community, to close a gap, to represent an identity or an interest that wasn’t once represented before, you know?”
Mil Mundos is located at 323 Linden Street in Bushwick, and has suspended its normal hours, only available by appointment. You can DM them or text them at (347) 425-7077 to set up an appointment to come in, and they plan to begin hosting online events soon.
Cafe con Libros is located at 724 Prospect Place in Crown Heights. They’re currently open Tuesday-Friday from 8:00 am to 2:00 pm and Saturday-Sunday from 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.
You can order a book or merchandise from Cafe con Libros’s online shop here. They offer a monthly subscription service, where they will deliver feminist books to your home. It’s available for ages 0-5, 5-9, and for adults.
You can order books to be delivered by bike from Mil Mundos by texting their phone number at (347) 425-7077 or DMing them on Instagram.