The small, cozy shop with a grassy backyard on East 103rd Street opened for business during a tough time for brick and mortar booksellers, a dying breed as readers increasingly turn to online retailers.
But for Aurora Anaya-Cerda, La Casa Azul was the realization of her dream to have a community bookstore filled with the stories that enchanted her when she was young. And the shop truly is a community project, opened with funds raised through a crowd-funding website.
Books first entered her life as she was growing up in East Los Angeles, where gangs and drugs were plentiful.
“I saw the opportunities that came from reading,” she said. As a child she found that “I could escape from my own reality into so many different fantasies.”
Anaya-Cerda, whose parents are Mexican, is the eldest of 22 grandchildren.* “Going outside to play was not an option and we did not have money to buy the latest Nintendo game,” she said. She turned to books such as “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros, “Bless me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya and “Rain of Gold” by Victor Villaseñor, books she also carries at the shop.
After teaching middle school for two years in Los Angeles, she decided to take accounting courses at Baruch College in New York to learn business.
“The very first two years I was just learning about how the book industry works,” said Anaya-Cerda. “It’s one thing to love to read and it’s another to run a bookstore.”
In 2008, at the peak of the recession, she went from bank to bank seeking a loan to open her store, but was turned down.
“I understood partially why I was being declined,” she said. “The other part of me did not understand how banks could not see the need, and for them it was down to the numbers.”
She opened an online bookstore instead, and also attended literary and school events to sell books.
Finally, two years later, she got approved for a loan and began lease negotiations. “On the day I was scheduled to sign, I got a call from the bank saying they had taken back their loan and would only give me half ,” said Anaya-Cerda, who therefore could not secure her lease.
Devastated, she turned to the community for help. Through Indiegogo.com, which allows individuals to raise money for start-ups, Anaya-Cerda started her “40K in 40 days” campaign to provide capital to open the shop.
In 40 days the campaign raised $32,000. Seeing the headway Anaya-Cerda was making, Indiegogo.com allowed her a seven-day extension, and in seven days, she raised an additional $4,000.
Six months ago, she opened her East Harlem bookstore, painting it the same brilliant blue as The Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City, the home where the troubled painter lived, also called La Casa Azul or the blue house. An artwork inspired by one of Kahlo’s portraits hangs in the front of the shop.
The store sells Latino-centric books in English and Spanish, as well as jewelry, greeting cards and book-related items.
The shop is not yet a money-maker, but Anaya-Cerda has no doubts that it will be.
“We have wonderful support from the donors and they tell their friends to come in. The press has also been wonderful. Local authors support, too,” she said. “It took a community to build this store and it’s going to take an entire community to make sure that the bookstore is sustainable.”
But while East Harlem celebrates a new bookstore, central Harlem has lost its 10-year-old reader’s corner. The Hue-Man Bookstore, which closed in July, now operates strictly online.
“We will be offering devices, e-books and downloadable books online, as well as hosting pop-up book events in Harlem,” said Marva Allen, chairman and senior partner of Hue-Man.
“We realized the publishing industry was changing rapidly. Readership is in decline,” said Allen. “We just could not renew our lease with the new rent.”
Allen said that the bookstore had been profitable and carried unique merchandise, but the owners decided to close it a couple of years ago. “We were up against huge competition,” she said.
Despite Hue-Man’s closing and the state of independent bookstores, Anaya-Cerda remains confident.
“This is a new chapter in the story of La Casa Azul,” she said.
*Correction: The story originally said that Anaya-Cerda was the eldest of 11; she is the eldest of three.