Our Baby’s Two Years Old: Cuba Libro!

Circa January 2002: I was sitting at my sister’s dining room table – in the crappy apartment she was forced to rent after losing her home and business in 9-11 – with a friend. At the time, he was a producer for PBS and I was a struggling writer. When I told him I was moving to Cuba to live and write he said: “who would ever buy what you have to write about Cuba?” Cue incredulous, pregnant pause (haters gotta hate, right?) I’m sure he doesn’t remember this comment made so long ago, but it kicks me in the ass every time I pitch, and write, and yes, get published. Turns out some people do want to buy and read what I have to write about Cuba.

Flash forward a dozen years. A friend drives across Havana to give me a sack of books. “They’re good, but not great and I have no room for them. If you don’t want them, I’m throwing them away.” So first of all: I don’t have room in my life for good, but not great books, let alone the shelves to hold them. Second of all: I can’t bear to see books thrown out and can’t do it myself – it’s like those leftovers I swear I’ll eat tomorrow, until tomorrow turns into the next day and then next week. By that time, I can no longer distinguish the pesto from the mold but it’s food; when you grow up poor, you don’t throw away food. Third of all: when my friend made that drive across town, I was in a very dark place, in a grief so deep I couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish a page of a book, let alone an entire title.

That yellow sack of books sat for six months gathering dust as I mourned my loss and questioned my life. And then, after much loving support from my friends and family here and there, I was able to get through a page, a book, an entire day without bursting into tears. I started feeling like me again. An idea began to brew. What if Havana had an English-language bookstore and coffeehouse, a place equally comfortable for Cubans and visitors, residents and foreigners, where you could sit with a good book and coffee to make conversation and friends and memories? It could be an oasis from hot, hectic Havana where nada es fácil; it could be a place for visitors to get cultural information and for Cubans to practice their English; it could and would be an alcohol-free space, a regguetón-free zone, a place with no place for pena.

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

But it could be so much more (obviously, I was feeling very much myself again, thinking and dreaming big). We could be ethically- and socially-responsible, basing our business philosophy on the principal that everything we do, every policy and practice, must be a win-win-win: a win for our customers, a win for our community, and a win for our staff. We could be a beacon in Cuba’s dark, uncertain times of private enterprise, where inequities are deepening, the country is experiencing double brain drain (people leaving for foreign shores; people leaving the state sector for the private), and the majority of Cubans don’t have the resources to patronize – let alone open – a private business. We would do things differently: we would be a place for everyone, our goods and services would be accessible to everyone, regardless of age, race, nationality, sexual orientation and importantly: finances. Money would not be the arbiter of who is in and who is out at our special spot. And so, Cuba Libro was born.

As two friends and I painted the space we rent from a neighbor, I honed my strategy about how to build community, support that community, and offer something completely different.

First Cuba Libro policy? You don’t have to buy anything. You can spend all day in a hammock reading National Geographic in Havana’s shadiest corner and not spend a kilo. This will bring in all the folks who don’t have the money or inclination to buy a coffee or book. It will make it a more diverse, exciting space. For people who love to read but don’t have the money or space for a book, we’ll offer library services, lending titles at 5 CUP (25 cents) for two weeks.

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Second policy? Cuba Libro staff will earn more than anyone else in Havana doing similar work. We will commit ourselves in this way (and others), to supporting Cuban youth – to proving that young people here can learn new skills, make a dignified living, and build a future in their beloved Cuba. In addition to the robust salary, I instituted a profit-sharing program for staff and a tip jar exclusively for them. Here’s a typical end-of-day exchange with staff: “Conner. This is too much. Please take your cut of the tips.” I always decline, but then they slip some bills into my bag when I’m not looking and I slip them right back. In an effort to support young Cubans, I determined we would dedicate part of the café to emerging artists who have little opportunity to show their work in a city where six terrific artists crawl out from under any rock. We’ve shown artists who use the hallway of their building to create or have to sit on their single mattress to paint. For almost all our artists, their Cuba Libro show is their first solo show. One of my favorite parts of this 2-year adventure is when I get to call one of these artists (especially the ones earning peanuts in a state job) to say: ‘you sold something; your work is going to Canada/the United States/Chile/wherever, c’mon by so we can settle up.’

reading is sexy

Third policy? We will do everything within our power to help attack inequities, educate, contribute to the health and well-being of our customers/staff/neighbors, broaden our collective support network, and build community. We will start donation programs, hold classes and workshops, plant trees, refill water bottles (as tourists numbers soar, plastic bottle waste is becoming a huge problem for this island ecology), give out free condoms (my public health commitment and also a way to diversify our community even more), make our stellar bathroom available to everyone, whether they buy something or know us or not, and actively curate titles, authors and genres requested by our community. When friends started an organic, collective farm, we offered to make their wonderfully delicious and affordable produce available to our community – at no profit to us. We pledge to be relevant and positive and pro-active.

Fourth policy? Cuba Libro will institute a collective decision-making model – any policy change or decision which affects our staff and/or community, requires consultation with them. This is completely new for many Cubans and we’ve had several opportunities to put the model to the test: do we want to appear in the Lonely Planet guidebook? Do we want to be on Travel Channel? This is a no-brainer for folks blind to everything except the bottom-line, but as I always say: ‘Cuba Libro is less about peddling coffee and books and more about being a resource for the surrounding community’ and once you get massive international exposure from media giants like LP and Travel Channel, the scales tip towards more foreigners, fewer locals in your establishment. Our collective debate revealed that none of us wanted this. But the debate also revealed alternatives, which ended up winning out. When I suggested raising our prices after more than a year in operation, staff pushed back, argued why we shouldn’t, and we didn’t; our prices, payable in either CUC or CUP, (another policy designed to make Cuba Libro as accessible as possible to as many as possible), have remained the same since opening: from a 60 cent espresso to a $1.50 frappuccino (both of which kick ass, according to customers). The latest debate is a rager: should we habilitate WiFi when it becomes a possibility? Feel free to weigh in, we’re currently collecting opinions.

Meanwhile, Cuban friends and family doubted my crazy bookstore/café idea when I unveiled it in 2013:

“You can’t give away stuff for free.”

“You have to sell liquor or you won’t survive. At least beer!”

“What’s the point of an English bookstore in a Spanish-speaking country?”

“You can’t lend books, they’ll never come back.”

Well, two years on, we’ve proven them wrong. Now what we’re hearing:

“Cuba Libro literally changed my life” (Susan, who met her future husband here)

“This is the best job I’ve ever had. It has changed my life” (Douglas! Fabulous Douglas, author of our original motto: ‘Life is peachy at Cuba Libro’);

“This is the coolest place in Havana” (Richard, early adopter and mainstay of the Cuba Libro family);

“I wouldn’t have survived medical school without Cuba Libro” (Dr Vero, another early adopter who was also the first – but not the last – to say: “I’m not telling anyone about this place. It’s MY oasis; I don’t want anyone to know about it”);

“I wish I had discovered this place when I first got to Havana” (Molly, a regular-in-the-making);

“This is my favorite place” (Humberto, who has cashed in more buy-10-get-1-free cards than anyone);

“I swear this is best iced coffee I’ve ever had” (Marcia, documentary filmmaker);

“Who are these new people? This is OUR hangout and they’re in MY hammock! (Maria Carla, Cuba Libro regular and future famous playwright).

We were one of (if not THE) first business with a loyalty reward program

We were one of (if not THE) first business with a loyalty reward program

I speak for the collective when I say: we’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved at Cuba Libro, very much a labor of love, very much a success – as defined by us. Although there are days we lose money, when the bureaucracy and inspections and blackouts and difficulties seem too much, there are days like last week when I looked around the garden, full of Cubans and a smattering of foreigners laughing, playing Scrabble and the guitar, reading Rolling Stone, and sipping 100% Cuban coffee and realized we’re not only creating community, we’re creating meaning in our lives and the lives of others. Douglas caught me smiling and read my mind: “this is what you dreamed of, right?” Yes, Dudu, this was the dream, the dream we’re making a reality in our shady little corner of Vedado, every day.

Last day before August vacation; they look happy, but these regulars (Cuban all, except me) grumbled!

Last day before August vacation; they look happy, but these regulars (Cuban all, except me) grumbled!

This post is dedicated to all our supporters from around the corner and around the globe, who have helped us survive and thrive over the past two years, proving the improbable is possible and that you can live your dreams. Thanks to you, we’ve found the motivation, positive energy, solidarity, and resources to do all of this in two short years:

– Over 5200 condoms distributed, free!
– Over 1600 book donations to Cuba Libro from around the world
– Dozens of bilingual dictionaries donated to the local elementary school
– One dozen bilingual dictionaries donated to a private English teacher
– Several large donations to family doctors and administrators
– One large donation of coloring books, crayons and age-appropriate games to Centro Habana Pediatric hospital
– 12 art shows of emerging Cuban artists + rocking parties to inaugurate each (free to public!)
– One live music event with musicians from USA & Cuba (free to public!)
– 6 cine debates (Cuban documentaries presented by the filmmakers followed by debate; free to public!)
– 3 book launches (free to public!)
– 121 official people-to-people groups received from the United States
– One semester-long conversational English class, taught by a certified, native English-speaker
– Visitors from more than 3 dozen countries
– One marriage
– Providing study space and caffeine for half a dozen medical students, now doctors
– Innumerable friends made (including those with benefits!)
– One baby on the way (due Oct 24th; congrats Gaby & Raudel!)
– One stray street dog adopted
– 132 frequent client cards filled (buy ten coffees or other drink, receive your next drink free)
– Planted 6 trees
– Launched organic farm share with Finca Tungasuk, reaching dozens of local families

Rescued, November 2014!! Senor Tobias, resident CL pet.

Rescued, November 2014!! Senor Tobias, resident CL pet.

It has been one hell of a ride and we’re steeling ourselves for Fall 2015, when we’ll be expanding the organic farm share, hosting a week-long American Sign Language workshop (taught by a Cuban), hosting two art openings and one cine debate and launching a book about Pope Francis (while he’s in Havana!) and my new book Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor. Our work regularly exhausts us but always motivates us to do more and better. Thank you Cuba Libro community for making our work meaningful. Here’s to the next two years!!

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44 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, environment, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

44 responses to “Our Baby’s Two Years Old: Cuba Libro!

  1. LH

    Oh, I wish I had known about it when I came to Havana in Dec 2013. You must have recently opened, and I had just discovered your iPhone app before my trip and was not yet on your mailing list. Will definitely stop by the next time I come down.

    Linda

    >

    • Hi Linda!! Sorry you missed us and you’re right: we opened on Aug 8, 2013, so we were still getting the word out by the time you rolled through town. We framed our first day of sales from Aug 8: $8.35 CUC and look at it fondly, often – reminds us how far we’ve come. Thanks for writing in and we’ll see you next time ’round.

  2. Pamela simon

    Hola Conner,’
    Congrats on the success of your space. I will drop by when I am in town for the film festival.
    I don’t know if you recall the young Cuban woman who was with me the day I visited you two years ago. Anyway, she is a former waitress and a language student who is an excellent cook, baker, and hairdresser – truly a renaissance woman. Would you have any work for her? She makes incredible cakes that are real works of art all while cutting your hair!
    If you have something for her, I will contact her.
    Gracias,
    Pam Simon

    • Hola Pam!! I dont remember, sorry. That was so long ago for us and thousands of work hours/customers. We’re not currently hiring but would love to meet her if anything becomes possible in the future. Cheers!

  3. INe

    Congrats Conner and Cuba Libro family! Hope to stop by next time I’m in Havana.

    Ines

  4. Mia

    Keep up all your good work Conner! You do make a difference❤️. I visited Cuba Libro while I was there. My husband and I (Visiting from USA) and our Cuban cousins felt equally at home while we sipped expresso. We had many laughs with the magic 8 ball that mi prima from Santiago had never seen before. Great Place that I hope to visit again .

    • The Magic 8 ball!! Im so glad you enjoyed it. I knew I had to have one of these at Cuba Libro, but it isn’t like the ones we had when I was kid….this one, made in China, is a bit wonky, but as we say in Cuba: algo es algo! Hope you can visit agian, too.

  5. Number 1 costumer :)

    Cuba Libro is the best place in the world!!! is a place where u can be all the weird and fricky that u really are (and never let yourself to be around many peaple) and filling like home! is a place of peace, of family, a place full of wonder, is the place where the wild things are… and now i let Conner to guess who write this hit to english grammar 🙂

  6. Nimrod Johnson

    Hey WOW , It sounds , no it obviously is great . I’m glad you did it so it exists I’m glad for you it gives you that important thing of life , the sense you are doing something worthwhile for yourself – because it is worthwhile for others! I spent 20 years on a kibbutz on the border and I suspect that the sense of satisfaction you express is close to what I felt.
    Now my only complaint is why wasn’t Cuba Libro there when we visited in 2010. Keep on keeping on, Nothing like living dreams.

  7. I really admire the work you`re doing there since we met two years ago and it`s been a pleasure following your blog since then 🙂 And if I can add my opinion for the wifi idea, please do it! Above all Cuba Libro should be a please where people can freely access all kinds of information, and the internet is vital for that these days.

    • My concern is not the availability of information (coming from the “real world”, one of the ancillary beauties of traveling in Cuba is that everyone is not tethered to their digital device, which is what makes it a fabulous place for family travel – people actually talk to each other! Use deductive skills instead of just hitting google!). Rather, when people come to Cuba Libro now, they talk and share stories, play games and the guitar, make new friends, give love to the dog. I fear if there’s wifi, that will go by the wayside. But Cubans want it desperately, so we will have to forge a balance between maintaining the holistic, natural exchange that happens at Cuba Libro every day, while remaining relevant/responsive to our (Cuban) community. Also, as a side note: making information available is what we do constantly, just in a different (and dare I say, more useful, meaningful) way. Would you rather sip a coffee and chat with Douglas, asking: hey, Douglas! What live music is happening today worth checking out? Or would you prefer to spend 25 minutes glued to your phone trying to wade through websites looking for cultural listings which cant tell you: this band isn’t worth it because the guitar player just emigrated to Miami or everyone is talking about this play and it closes this weekend, so get thee there now?

      We still have some time before wifi will even be possible and I was extraordinarily encouraged when I sat down to be interviewed by Todd Carmichael of Travel Channel’s Uncommon Grounds and owner of the La Colombe chain of cafes on the US east coast and he told me that he blocks wifi in all his cafes – precisely to encourage conversation, exchange, and community. And La Colombe is very, very successful. That’s possible when wifi is available everywhere and it becomes a novelty/attraction to NOT have it (ie in NY, Philly, DC where LA Colombe thrives) which, as we know, is not Cuba. So we’ll have to see. Your opinion and vote has been counted!

  8. OMG!!!! Who hasn’t had the “coffee-shop-bookstore” dream at one point or another? You’ve taken it to not only the next level, but to a whole new dimension! After spending almost every summer in la Habana for about 15 years, it has now been a few years since I’ve been back. Knowing that Cuba Libro is waiting for me when I go back is making me want to buy my ticket – ya!

  9. William McClary

    HELLO YES I ENJOY YOUR WRITING VERY MUCH THANK YOU I AM CANADIAN AND HAVE SPENT A LOT OF TIME IN “STGO” BUT NOT IN HAVANA ..MY FRIEND IN STGO NOW LIVES IN CANADA AND HER BOYFRIEND ALSO HAVE BEEN HERE 8 YEARS NOW…THEY HAVE DONE WELL HARD WORKERS AND VERY SHARP.. THANKS AND HOPE TO MEET YOU 1 DAY..BILL Date: Thu, 20 Aug 2015 15:43:10 +0000 To: billmcclary@hotmail.com

  10. Mary Frazier

    What a thrill to see how much you have accomplished in two short years. An awesome business model. Kudos!

    • Thanks Mary. What’s so wonderful about it is the collective effort that has made all of this possible! I wish all our Cuban friends, supporters and staff could see all this wonderful feedback. I think I’ll print them out and bring them in to share.

  11. lindenhuizinga

    This is an awesome initiative.. can’t wait to stop by next time i am in cuba and will defenitly pass the word to cuban friends and family. Good luck with your third year…

  12. Caney

    Congratulations Conner!! You and your team are doing a GREAT job. Keep it up!! Hope to visit you one day…

  13. My son in law on way to Cuba and I made sure he knew about your place, grand son was there last month and I had him read your post before he left. Congrats from an Ole Grand’Ma in Mississippi.

  14. Blu

    ¡Felicidades, Connor! Soy tu fan. En octubre visito La Habana y de seguro también Cuba Libro. Un abrazo.

  15. Sharonomink

    Congratulations on the anniversary, Conner. You know how I enjoyed my siestas in your hammock during my visit and I hope you know how appreciative I am for your support of Molly & her project, not to mention giving her a place to feel at home when she was on her own there. Keep up the great work you’re doing, say hi to everyone when you re-open and I hope to see you again soon – with a new stack of books I’m already setting aside for my return. And – of course – will bring a new supply of dog treats for the pup!

    • Hi Sharon (AKA: bearer of delicious dog treats)! It’s funny, I was writing this post and was remembering how Molly (and then you) found us and slipped right in to the Cuba Libro swing of things/community and had to mention her! It is like Douglas said: this is always how I dreamed of it – Cubans seeking solace/refuge/shade/books/coffee/community – and visitors seeking same. Have a great autumn and see you next time.

  16. Stephanie Barbee

    I am downsizing and would like to donate some books to Cuba Libro. I too find it hard to throw away books. I am planning my visit as we speak and hope to see you in the near future.

    • Thanks Stephanie!! Please note we do not accept mysteries or romance. We are also all out of hibiscus flowers (used for our kick ass jamaica tea, which we introduced to Havana) and Celestial Seasonings wild berry and blueberry teas. If any of that makes its way into your luggage/our doorstep, we’d be eternally grateful (and your coffee’s on the house). Have a wonderful trip!

  17. Arturo

    Habana here I come (soon) and I will bring some classics with me. I am taking a break from Santiago on this trip and heading to the big city. Jack London and Hemingway better than trashy romance novels? I am truly looking forward to seeing Cuba Libro and the motley crew!

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  19. Jennifer Hiemstra

    Hello Conner! I’m so excited to hear about Cuba Libro – I don’t know how I missed it before now! I’m going to be coming from Toronto in January and could bring some books and/or teas, etc. I’m coming with some friends and we’re mostly staying in Varadero, but plan to come into Havana for a couple days. I haven’t been back since 2011, when I used your awesome iPhone app to find great places to eat. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s something I can bring for you and your crew at Cuba Libro – I’ll do my best!

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  23. I stumbled into Cuba Libro (by chance!) a few weeks ago. Had a fantastic cafe con leche and enjoyed a place where no one blew kisses at me. What a great place! I chilled there for a while, writing in my journal. Very nice. I’ll be back for sure next time I’m in the neighborhood!

  24. Humberto (le llamo el chino) is my asere !!!! im working on my blog about my life in cuba at the moment, but next time im in havana we should have a cafe

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  29. Silvia

    Love it! What is your address? I will be stopping by in my next trip for sure!

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