Now Open in Cuba: English-Language Bookstore, Cuba Libro

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Image: Courtesy of Cuba Libro
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Cuba Libro is the island's only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Cuba Libro is the island’s only bookstore specializing in English-language books.
Because my husband is Cuban and because I’ve visited Cuba nearly a dozen times over the past decade, I get lots of travel questions about the island. I can’t answer most of these questions, as I tend to stay with my mother-in-law and I’ve never experienced Cuba as a tourist; I end up directing inquiries to my friend Conner Gorry, who has lived on the island for longer than I’ve been visiting. Her blog and her travel app are as much intel as you’re going to get without moving there yourself.

Conner just sent word about Cuba Libro, an English-language bookstore and cafe in Havana… the island’s only English-language bookstore and cafe. It just opened this week. Here’s everything you need to know about it, straight from Conner:

This island is unique in so many ways (both good and not so) and one thing that has always struck me is that Havana must be one of the only – if not the only – capital city where you can’t get an English-language newspaper or novel. The reasons are complex (what isn’t in Cuba?!) but it means literature lovers have to beg, borrow or steal books in English or bring their Kindle well-loaded.

Located on a terminally shady corner in the desirable Vedado district, this ‘café literario’ is bringing the bookstore/coffeehouse concept to the island. All books and magazines pass through the ‘Conner filter’ (if you find a Harlequin Romance on the shelves, you get a free espresso!): I guarantee if you’re in need of quality reading material or conversation with interesting, creative Cubans, you’ll find it here.

In addition to featuring monthly shows by talented local artists – August showcases over a dozen captivating images by photographer Alain Gutiérrez – Cuba Libro offers many services travelers are after: water bottle refills; postcards, stamps, and mailing; a cultural calendar (so you won’t miss that hot concert or polemic play); and expert travel tips. This is an ethically-responsible business that offers a lending library for those who can’t afford books, a collective employment model where the entire team benefits, and an environmentally-friendly approach. Like Cuba itself, Cuba Libro strives for equity and a healthy, culturally-rich atmosphere.

This is also a regguetón free zone – we listen to real music at Cuba Libro! Come early to snag a coveted hammock or hanging chair in the garden.

Open Monday-Saturday, 10am-8pm.

Frida Kahlos in New York City

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photos: Francisco Collazo
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A woman channels her inner Frida.
A woman channels her inner Frida.
What struck me, as I looked at Francisco’s photos of the women who showed up for the Frida Kahlo look-alike contest at New York City’s La Casa Azul Bookstore, was how each woman embodied Frida.

I didn’t say looked like Frida. I said embodied.

Yes, there was the woman whose eyebrows did seem to arch and join in the way that school kids learning about Frida and men who are afraid of strong women find so uncomfortable they have to joke about her unibrow. But these women weren’t trying to be Frida. Instead, they were each, seemingly, trying to take inspiration from some aspect of Frida’s essence and channel it in her own unique way.

And it was interesting to me, too, what aspects of Frida’s identity or the images of Frida that we are most familiar with were appropriated and interpreted: the oversized jewelry, the intense expressions and fearless eye contact, and the monkey… the monkey! I must have looked at 20 photos before I saw the woman who had the monkey on her shoulder.

The Frida Kahlo look-alike contest was one of many events hosted by La Casa Azul bookstore, which describes itself as “grounded in Latino culture.” If you’re in New York City and want to visit the bookstore, it’s located at 143 E. 103rd Street.

Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907. The look-alike birthday celebration was held on July 7, 2012.
Frida Kahlo was born on July 6, 1907. The look-alike birthday celebration was held on July 7, 2012.

A contestant puts the finishing touches on her maquillaje.
A contestant puts the finishing touches on her maquillaje.

Notice the monkey on this Frida's shoulder? Frida Kahlo had a pet monkey named Fulang Chang, and monkeys appeared in several of her paintings.
Notice the monkey on this Frida's shoulder? Frida Kahlo had a pet monkey named Fulang Chang, and monkeys appeared in several of her paintings.
The contestants pose for a group shot, staying entirely "in character."
The contestants pose for a group shot, staying entirely "in character."
The contest over, the Fridas leave together and then go their separate ways.
The contest over, the Fridas leave together and then go their separate ways.

The complete set of Frida Kahlo look-alike photos is available for viewing on Flickr.