María Herron carefully measures out two spoonfuls of La Carreta Cuban coffee while I take in the books lining the shelves of her store. As the cafecito brews, she sets out two saucers and espresso cups – her mothers’, she explains – as she discusses rising gentrification in her neighborhood, racial politics, and the quality of nearby schools. “There are all these conversations that need to be talked about,” she says, and then gestures to the coffee, “over something like this.”
Herron opened Mil Mundos, a bilingual bookstore and community space, this March to bring radical literature to her predominantly Latinx neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. Mil Mundos stocks about half of its books in Spanish, and walking around the store, you’re just as likely to stumble upon a copy of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States as Los condenados de la tierra.
For Herron, the Spanish-language titles and sign on the front door greeting visitors with a “Bienvenidos! Pasale,” are essential to making Mil Mundos a welcoming space. She knows all too well that the residents of her neighborhood might not feel comfortable stepping inside a bookstore.
At a previous job, Herron remembers watching the friends of the bookstore’s Black and Latinx interns dash in and out. “They’re like, ‘I can’t afford anything in here; I don’t want to mess anything up,’” she remembers. It upset her, but she kind of got it. If you grew up in housing projects, attending under-resourced schools, or with a library that was only open four hours a day, it wasn’t a longshot to think a bookstore was too nice for you.
But Herron doesn’t want Mil Mundos to be like that. In fact, she describes the bookstore on its website as “a space where two people can talk excitedly in any language without being told to keep the volume down; where culture is celebrated and held close.” That’s where the coffee comes in, it’s part of welcoming her neighbors into the space.
Mil Mundos is the only bookstore east of Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick. Herron remembers a friend of hers, who grew up in Bushwick, saying, “There was never a bookstore here. Bookstores are a Manhattan thing.”
Herron has plans to welcome her Bushwick neighbors into the store with cafecitos, evening performances and author events, and maybe even a television to watch fútbol matches. But, the core of Mil Mundos’ welcoming philosophy is language justice and partnerships with local schools.
Mil Mundos’ small staff is entirely bilingual and Herron’s committed to making sure it stays that way. “Especially being in this neighborhood, people working behind the counter have to be bilingual, it’s non-negotiable,” she says. “That’s not a bias thing, that’s an accessibility thing. If you don’t speak Spanish, you cannot do your job.”
Herron has tackled the bilingual part of Mil Mundos; what she’s working on now is outreach to local schools. Her aim is to welcome field trips to Mil Mundos. “Those kids need to be brought into a bookstore and told it’s OK,” she says.
But she understands the odds she’s up against. “You want to make space for people to show up. You also want to speak to their experience,” she says. “[But] people are not trying to like spend $30 on a book. People are trying to be OK, and they’re not even getting that, you know.”
Herron knows that even if her neighbors feel comfortable in her store, that doesn’t mean they’ll leave with a book. And it’s about more than just class. “I think a lot of white leftists don’t realize how much trust goes into a brown person picking up a rebellious text in a neighborhood that they live in and need,” she says. “‘Cause they’re trying to be off the radar. They’re trying to not get in trouble.”
Herron herself knows how transformative bookstores can be. She spent four years as a collective member at Bluestockings, the volunteer-run, collectively owned Manhattan bookstore known for its vast collection of books on race, feminism, sexuality, activist strategies, and other social justice issues.
Bluestockings is “definitely what radicalized me,” Herron says, but then backtracks. “Maybe not. I feel like I already was radicalized and I feel like a lot of people are. People are smarter than you think, they just don’t have the lexicon to express themselves.”
If bookstores gave Herron the language to speak about oppression and resistance, then Bushwick is the neighborhood where she wants to translate that language into action. She wants kids to feel welcomed into bookstores at an early age so that they’re not afraid to pick up books about race, sexuality, or politics.
At Mil Mundos, Herron has dedicated herself to bringing a thousands of worlds’ worth of ideas and stories to a community that may have previously lacked the language to express its already strongly held beliefs.
Editor’s Note: To help keep the business open, Herron has launched a crowdfunding campaign. Learn more and donate here.