At the top of our “to do” list while in New York City for BookExpo this year was a visit to La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem. We first met the owner, Aurora Anaya-Cerda, in September of 2007 when she attended our intensive workshop retreat, Owning a Bookstore: The Business Essentials.  Even before the economy tumbled, resources for Aurora were scarce. But she never lost her enthusiasm and hope for her very own community-oriented bookstore.

Aurora Anaya Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore

Aurora Anaya Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore

Aurora was one of the first start-ups to pursue crowd funding. The effort not only brought forth a plethora of positive press, more than 500 people surfaced to help fund a bookstore for “El Barrio”. She doggedly pursued every opportunity for start-up grants, and was finally able to put the pieces in place to open her shop. Today, La Casa Azul Bookstore is one of several other woman-owned businesses on East 103rd Street. But opening a community bookstore wasn’t all that Aurora had in mind – she also launched the East Harlem Children’s Book Festival, leading the effort to celebrate literature and the arts in her community.

Tiny musicians rehearse for the store's first anniversary celebration

Tiny musicians rehearse for the store’s first anniversary celebration

On the day of her first anniversary celebration, Saturday, June 1, we arrived to hear the sound of music – not from a boom-box, but from stringed instruments. Following our ears to the special events area in the store’s basement, we found dozens of young children, dressed in black and white, playing their pint-sized violins. Music teachers from a nearby music academy had each child’s full attention as they rehearsed for their first public performance. Then we went out to the open-air courtyard behind the bookstore to listen to Aurora’s warm welcome and congratulatory words from Congressman Charlie Rangle, and watch the children parade onto the stage to play “What a Wonderful World,” much to the delight of everyone gathered for the occasion.

Aurora has implemented a number of other programs and activities as well. There’s the Beans and Rice book group, De Colores Summer Reading program for kids, art exhibits and performances in her basement event area and outdoor courtyard, a bilingual children’s story-time – in all, more than twenty special events each month at La Casa Azul. And her small shop has become a “must” for Latino authors like Junot Diaz and Sandra Cisneros.

La Casa Azul signAurora’s dream has become a reality, yet is still a work in progress. Not only does the whole East Harlem community celebrate with her, the White House recently recognized La Casa Azul as a “Champion of Change.” Congratulations, Aurora! This is the indie spirit at its finest.