In Brooklyn, Coffee – with a Side of Books – at Bodega Prices

Kalima Desuze (right), the owner of Café con Libros, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. (Photo by Ana B. Nieto via El Diario)

On a Sunday in May, as hymns and prayers resounded all over the streets of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and bodegas and businesses old and new opened for the day, some people were picking up the pace, book in hand, to make it to their book club meeting on time. Café con Libros only opened recently – in December 2017 – but since day one, the charming eatery has been filled at any given time with the smell of hot coffee and more than 20 people willing to share their views on the book “Children of Blood and Bone,” by Tomi Adeyemi.

Adeyemi is one of the authors whose books are sold, read and discussed at this small coffee shop owned by Kalima Desuze, an Afro-Latina born to Panamanian parents who has turned this corner into a place where people not only talk about books, but also about female authors, women and feminism.

“Books are some of my favorite things. I would have a closet full of them,” said Desuze. The fact that feminism is the main topic promoted here responds to the owner’s interest in what women have to say. “That is what I read,” she said categorically.

Desuze is a social worker. She mentioned that she pondered things from several different perspectives before launching her business. The first was that she believes women “should have different sources of income. It is important for us to diversify where our income comes from.” In addition to this, she thinks that it is important to make room for one’s passions and, in this case, she was able to combine both things.

The business owner, who was only weeks away from giving birth at the time of this interview, said that she feels fortunate to be able to work doing something she loves. “I can’t imagine doing anything else, but I also know that not everyone is this lucky and this happy at work. There’s nothing like finding a place and occupation that makes you happy and offers you the possibility to earn a living.”

Desuze had been thinking for years about opening her own bookstore but was aware of the competition she would face. Not in her neighborhood, where there are not many businesses of this type despite the evident gentrification of the area, but online – namely Amazon.

Selling books “was not going to be enough to pay the bills so I thought of a concept that would go well with books such as a place to drink wine.”

Before deciding on the bookstore idea, which she began toying with in 2012, Desuze traveled to Ethiopia. She visited a coffee shop in the capital city of Addis Ababa where she saw people who were happy and loud in a city where life is not easy.

“I wanted people to be happy here as well, over coffee,” she said, referring to her bookshop, which had been in the works since 2016.

Desuze acknowledged that it was not easy. She put all her savings into the business, adding that it was hard to do “the little things:” “I wonder if it would have been this hard for a man.” Experience has taught her that it is hard to be taken seriously when a woman is leading a project.

The fine coffee served at the shop is priced affordably. Desuze believes that there is a class gap in the U.S. regarding the beverage. “Everyone can buy inexpensive coffee at the bodega, but good-quality coffee has a different price.” This is why the entrepreneur chose to offer “quality at a reasonable price.”

She admitted that she has yet to “see profits on most aspects of the business.” She has three employees, one of them her life partner, and said that a large part of her business model is based on the service she offers the community. “But I have to rethink the model and align it with my values.”

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