Aurora Anaya-Cerda celebrated the opening of her bookstore, La Casa Azul, on East 103rd Street in East Harlem on Friday night. (Photo: Brad Vest for The New York Times)

The New York TimesIt seems to make little business sense. Not when Amazon’s dominance continues to threaten brick-and-mortar storefronts. And not when the economy has already claimed many small businesses.

None of that, however, has deterred Aurora Anaya-Cerda from pursuing her dream.

It took six years, but her quest to open a bookstore, La Casa Azul, has finally come to fruition.

“This has been an incredible journey, overwhelming at times,” Ms. Anaya-Cerda said. “So many people have told me they share my dream — to have this as a community space is something we’ve all wanted for East Harlem.”

A mural on the outside of the store, which specializes in Latino literature, in English and in Spanish, depicts the faces of Julia de Burgos, Pedro Pietri and Piri Thomas — literary icons whose works have helped promote Puerto Rican culture. Raising awareness for these figures is part of Ms. Anaya-Cerda’s mission to help El Barrio’s Latino community get in touch with its heritage and history.

“This is going to be a mecca for writers from all over the country,” said Rich Villar, a poet, who attended the store’s opening on Friday.

La Casa Azul lies at the nexus of a changing neighborhood at East 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Plush condos and gritty bodegas stand side by side. A large Mexican restaurant is just steps away, reflecting the demographic shift of recent years.

Ms. Anaya-Cerda was born in California, but was raised until age 4 in Mexico. In 2005, she was captivated by El Barrio on her first trip to the East Coast.

“It felt like home, really comfortable. I could see myself living here,” she said. “Two years later, I moved. It was a one-way ticket — no job, no friends. I gave myself three months. If I didn’t have a job after that, I would go home.”

She found a teaching post at an after-school program, before also going to work at El Museo del Barrio coordinating educational initiatives. “Throughout that whole time, while I was working these two jobs, I was also planning to open a store,” Ms. Anaya-Cerda said.

Her love for literature goes back to childhood, when she was “surrounded by books” at a very young age. “My mother says that I’m a reader from the womb, because she would read a lot even when she was pregnant,” Ms. Anaya-Cerda said.

“Literature played an important part in my life, and the bookstore idea started from there,” she added.

But financial problems got in the way. Last year a bank loan was denied at the 11th hour, as Ms. Anaya-Cerda was about to sign her lease. She then raised $36,000 in online and private donations and received an interest-free matching loan from an investor, which enabled her to secure the space.

La Casa Azul (“The Blue House”) is named after the painter Frida Kahlo’s home in the outskirts of Mexico City, and Ms. Anaya-Cerda hopes to create a similarly intimate atmosphere.

Marlene Pratt, who helped open the store, said of Ms. Anaya-Cerda: “She designed it with the concept of her grandmother’s house. You see all the Mexican colors, nice and bright, but they complement each other. It’s a modern interpretation.”

Ms. Pratt is a founder of Casa Latina, a home and lifestyle brand serving Latino communities. She arranged a $5,000 furniture donation from Ikea to La Casa Azul. The store’s basement reading lounge is filled with comfortable seating, and will serve as a gallery, while its backyard provides extra space for private or educational events.

“Artists will be coming every week, July through August, to teach different art projects,” Ms. Anaya-Cerda said. “We will also have film screenings on the patio, author readings, and a ‘meet the agent’ workshop for writers.”

If history is any predictor, Ms. Anaya-Cerda will have to be as creative as possible to keep her dream alive.

A few blocks away, another bookstore, Cemi Underground, closed in 2009, just two years after opening.

“We held events every Thursday and Friday — comedy, poetry, open mic nights — and the place would fill up,” said Luis Cordero Santoni, a graphic artist, who had started the store and who also works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“I think we produced 150 events in two years,’’ he said. “But the problem was that during the week, there would be very few sales. I was not making enough to sustain the bookstore.”

Ms. Anaya-Cerda said she was fully aware of the economic perils she may face. But she said her past experience working at six bookstores made her “as prepared as I can be.”

“I’m taking on the challenge at full speed, because I think it’s important for the community,” she added.

Sery Colón also had unpleasant experiences trying to sell books the old-fashioned way.

Not only did he work at Cemi Underground, Mr. Colón was also the owner of Agüeybaná, a Latino bookstore on the Lower East Side that shuttered in 1998 when “the rent increased fourfold.”

“One time, I remember somebody called to ask if I had a specific Puerto Rican book, and he dared to tell me it was $2 cheaper on Amazon,” he continued. “That’s what killed me.”

Mr. Colón still occasionally dabbles in the trade. At a market outside El Museo del Barrio recently, he “made just one sale all day,” yet he still believes an appetite for literature exists in East Harlem. “You need to know where you are, what kind of people you’re serving, and what books interest them. You cannot carry just what you want to carry.”

These cautionary tales have not discouraged Ms. Anaya-Cerda, who was in high spirits as a long line of people formed outside La Casa Azul on its opening night. “It feels amazing and surreal,” she said. “This place is just how I dreamed it.”

Published @ The New York Times, 6/5/12, and in the following day’s print edition – click here for original.