In June 2020, three months into a pandemic, feminist bookstore and coffee shop Cafe con Libros went from selling an average of 250 to 300 books a month to 2,000 a month.
"I work full-time and I’m not on social media a lot so I had no idea what was happening," says owner Kalima DeSuze of the surge in sales, which was spurred on by the push to support Black businesses after the racial justice protests.
"We had 100 pages of orders. My assistant was going through the email orders and the numbers kept increasing. We [brought on] 15 volunteers [to] process over 7,000 orders. We did it all manually, from May to September,” she says. “We made a significant amount of money but it was bittersweet because of what was behind it."
A Feminist Bookstore With Local Roots
In 2017, DeSuze opened Cafe con Libros, a feminist bookstore and coffee shop, with a focus on community. Opening the Crown Heights, Brooklyn-based business allowed DeSuze to expand her community-building efforts while sharpening her business skills, and Cafe con Libros has thrived by meeting the neighborhood's needs for connection and self-learning during the pandemic.
"Cafe con Libros is really an extension of my social work and activism," says DeSuze. "The people who come in know the politics of the space, they support us because they choose to." Cafe con Libros displays very specific values: inclusivity, equity and social justice. Ninety percent of the books are by, for or about women. "To walk into this space and see that all the faces on the covers or names on the books are female is an incredible feeling," she says. With a name that’s a play on the Spanish phrase café con leche (coffee with milk), which honors her Panamanian heritage, DeSuze’s bookstore represents the significant influences in her life.
Growing up in Crown Heights, DeSuze was an avid reader of books that featured the Black feminist perspective. "These books helped me become who I am and they saved my life. I live in a country that doesn’t appreciate dark women with natural hair. [The books] helped me with that," she says. After she decided to create a business around her passion for books, she researched bookstores, talked to business owners and listened to podcasts. For the cafe aspect of the space, she recalled her travels to Ethiopia and aimed to capture its coffee culture of community and spirited energy. The cafe features fair-trade coffee and locally-made pastries as well as book titles curated from her personal collection.
We’re building relationships across gender, race and class. It’s possible, you just need a space to facilitate that. I’m so proud of what we’ve done.
—Kalima DeSuze, founder, Cafe con Libros
Adjusting to the New Normal
When DeSuze first opened Cafe con Libros, her business partner and husband, Ryan Cameron, served as manager while she came in during her lunch hour and from 5pm to 7pm, after she finished her social work job—all while also being a mother to a toddler. But when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, she had to shut down the store. She was already selling books online through the Cafe con Libros website, but she added 12oz bags of coffee to their online store and kept the community aware of updates with their weekly e-newsletter. She also increased the offerings of the shop’s monthly book subscription, "Feminist & Bookish," by adding more categories to choose from and changed the pick-up only option to delivery. Then, in June, came the big—but bittersweet—increase in sales.
Besides broadening Cafe con Libros' reach and giving the store a platform, the increase in sales pushed DeSuze to add Bookshop, a nonprofit e-commerce alternative to Amazon, as an online sales site. "We were spending so much time and creativity curating books and processing orders and I had to alleviate that so we could spend more time connecting with the local community," she says.
DeSuze re-opened the shop in September and stays in touch with the community by hosting monthly in-person book clubs to encourage discussion and engagement. She plans to resume her monthly podcast, Black Feminist & Bookish, where she interviews a community member about that month's book as well as their favorite things about the neighborhood. She writes a blog where she examines social and community issues, and also makes sure that the e-newsletter uplifts community concerns around social and political topics.
Reconnecting With Community
Equipped with an MSW (Master of Social Work) in community organizing, DeSuze knows firsthand the power of community. “Belonging means a lot to me so I’d like to help people find their tribe. I want to create a space where people are seen and feel that they belong,” she says. In terms of future plans for the cafe and bookstore, she says, "I’d like to expand with more community partnerships and work with more local authors and artists.”
Although DeSuze is still devoted to her social work career, she loves the opportunities for growth and change that Cafe con Libros gives to her. "I've learned a lot about how to run a business from an accessible standpoint,” she says. Recently, DeSuze raised her prices from below the MSRP after discovering that her customers wanted to invest in her bookstore. “We used to have prices below the suggested retail to welcome all economic backgrounds, but it was cutting into profit. We realized that our community could afford the MSRP. Shopping at an independent bookstore is a political choice and the majority of folks want to invest,” she says.
Cafe con Libros serves the community in many ways and DeSuze is excited about how the shop has become a local hub. "Reading teaches you about other people's experiences," she says. "We discuss our perspectives about what we’ve read and it promotes empathy building. We’re building relationships across gender, race and class. It’s possible, you just need a space to facilitate that. I’m so proud of what we’ve done."
Photo: Bogdana, We Are Dore / Courtesy of Cafe con Libros