I asked Kalima DeSuze how she was doing. “Learning as I grow every single day,” she replied, without skipping a beat.
I’m chatting with the formidable woman behind Crown Heights’ feminist bookstore and coffee shop, Cafe con Libros, an inviting little nook of a shop nestled on Prospect Pl. between Rogers and Nostrand Avenues.
It’s the type of place that on a busy day you can blow right past, but when that unparalleled medley of scents — fresh coffee and books — wafts past your nose, you’ll feel compelled to go in. Once inside, you may be greeted by a couple of locals chilling in their window nooks, deeply engrossed in the latest Roxane Gay or a reprint of Audre Lorde, Kalima’s partner working behind the stylish coffee counter, and a wondrous array of novels, nonfiction, and children’s books (both in English and Spanish), all written by women of multitudinous backgrounds and eras.
Kalima is an Afro-Latinx feminist, social worker, activist, teacher, veteran, and new mother. She is from the neighborhood; she grew up on Eastern Parkway and Franklin where, among Crown Heights’ buzziest restaurants and bars, you can now find an oversized Starbucks and Citibikes stationed in front of the ever-popular Franklin Ave subway stop. She has combined a lifelong journey, curiosity and love of literature, community, intersectional feminism, and delicious coffee to create a space in her home turf that brings her, and others around her, joy.
Reading into her past
Kalima cites her mother and the neighborhood for inspiring her love of reading. Her mother was an avid reader, introducing Kalima to books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and filling their apartment with magazines like Ebony; and she lived just a short walk from the gargantuan, art deco Brooklyn Central Library.
“I have a deep affinity and love for and connection to the area that I grew up in,” Kalima tells me, as we discuss the cultural, largely immigrant, roots of the neighborhood and the community she wants to continually invest in. But at 18, with promises of free travel and higher education, she left home to join the US Army.
She developed what she calls a “critical love” for the military. “I think for all intents and purposes, the military is an amazing opportunity and learning experience for folks. A part of me feels that we should all serve, because I learned so much about working with people who I otherwise would never have interacted with and who would have never interacted with me. But it’s also very problematic.”
Far from home, trying to forge new community apart from family, she was disheartened by the politics at play, how gender, race, education level, immigration status, and “otherness,” served to isolate and oppress those who didn’t hold the reins of power within the deeply established institution. “I saw so much rape, so much abuse of power, and I saw so much of women taking the blame and how women are often so sacrificial. I didn’t have the language, but I was really curious and really emotional that this could happen.”
She returned home from her service and continued to pursue her education, receiving a Masters in Social Work from Hunter College in Manhattan.
“Hunter changed my life,” Kalima gushes, “What Hunter did was give me the language to better understand my experiences. It really contextualized all these very sort of random incidents and experiences that I had and put them into a larger context and interconnected them for me, and deepened my curiosity and deepened my critical thinking skills about how institutions work and operate.”
Kalima’s résumé would make you think she’d lived her life a few times over. She has six years of military service and two social work degrees under her belt. She’s worked with survivors of domestic violence, created programs for female veterans, and facilitated a men’s trauma group in a prison. She’s served as the Community Development Director at Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), the primary organizer for the Undoing Racism Project, the chief strategist for three major campaigns at Voices of Women Organizing Project…the list goes on. But she had another project in the works.
Creating Cafe con Libros
A play off café con leche, popular in her parents’ native Panama, Kalima opened Cafe con Libros in 2017, after spending years mulling over the idea of opening a business outside of her career as a social worker.
“My philosophy is that we should build our lives first and then build our careers around our lives,” Kalima explains, “We need to think about the things that bring us joy, and move those things that bring us joy into two things.
“One: service to the community, and two: an alternative source of income. And I think this is really important for women, chiefly black and brown women, because oftentimes we are not paid what we are worth in the working world, and we are working at jobs that we are sometimes not in love with, and we deserve to have joy in every aspect of our lives.”
In searching for that perfect combination — what joy looks like to her and how to pay that forward — she looked around her home and noticed how, more than anything else, it was filled to the brim with books.
“Books really saved my life,” Kalima says. “I looked around at my books and most of them were written by women, women of color, and they were global. And it really saved my life. There were times when I couldn’t answer questions about my own identity and I would read, and it would give me more insight into who I am and put my experience in a global context; it’s not just about me. So I decided I wanted a feminist bookstore.”
Kalima knew instinctively that Crown Heights was the only possible setting for her coffeeshop/bookshop, and it was important for her to open it alone, on her own timeline. She delved deep into research: she read business books, visited cafes, spoke to business owners, listened to podcasts (NPR’s How I Built This was a particular favorite.) Solo travels brought her to Ethiopia, where she fell in love with their coffee culture: “There was a ritual around it, love around it, there was community, there was joy. And I thought, ‘This is what I want my bookstore to feel like, I want to have a feeling of community, joy, rambunctious energy.’”
Cafe con Libros achieves all of that. At the cafe, they serve Irving Farm coffee and locally-sourced pastries. While often a quiet, well-lit oasis to reflect alone with a book, the space comes alive with book clubs and other events, which Kalima says fill “organically” through Instagram and word of mouth among the store’s steady stream of patrons. The community she services includes the local passersby, but it also cultivates an “ideological community,” as Kalima put it, one that brings together a patchwork of lived experiences under the broad, expansive umbrella term that is “feminism.”
Building a community-centric business
During our chat, Kalima often cites community, her devotion to it, what it has given her, and how she can service it in return. In examining this concept, she allows some flexibility in how local this idea needs to be — the makeup of Crown Heights, after all, is radically shifting with each passing year. Part of the community she services is local — she wants anyone passing by, male or female, young or old — to feel comfortable walking in.
“Bookstores hold potential,” she states, reasserting how her understanding of her own identity has been shaped through literature. Kalima often gifts the children’s books she sells in the store to her nieces and nephews, giving them access to a literary world they may have felt otherwise closed off to — even when a space like hers is in their neighborhood. Her familial connection to the children makes them feel welcome in a space that may be perceived as elitist. By sharing with them, she provides them with the language that she says helped her understand her own experiences.
At checkout, the prices of both the coffee and the books are noticeably lower than the prices we’ve come to expect in chic, independently owned shops in New York. This is purposeful — Kalima’s markups are well below the suggested retail prices.
“I have a strong commitment to keeping the price point at a place that’s accessible to the community, to anyone who would like to come in and visit and patronize the space. I remain open to seeing what is possible, how I could do things a little differently without exploiting my community or isolating others,” she asserts. “There are people who are shocked at the prices, that they’re so low, but that’s their privilege talking, you know? There are people who love coffee, but someone who has to make a decision between a coffee and a MetroCard would not be saying the prices are low, this is what they need to afford both.”
Ever introspective, Kalima pondered her own gender politics in forgoing maximum profit. “I didn’t go into this with the idea of making money, which is something I need to investigate internally, because I think that’s a very gendered way of going about things. I think there is a way to go into a business endeavor saying that you want to make a profit but not exploiting communities in doing so. To not even consider profit is playing into the trope that women need to be sacrificial,” she sighs.
In addition to opening her doors to all Crown Heights residents, Kalima hoped to expand the community of her feminist book club, which she looks to as a source of inspiration in the conception of Cafe con Libros.
“It was an intergenerational, interracial book club, mixed sexuality, so all thirteen of us could read one book and come out with thirteen different perspectives. And it was astounding to me that that was even possible on that level, when we had all declared ourselves as feminist.”
As a way of opening her space and her literary community, Kalima invited her original book club members to join in on Cafe con Libros’ community book club meetings, which thus far have covered books like The Alchemist, We Are All Children of Blood and Bone, *and *Kindred.
“People will DM me and ask to sign up, but there’s no RSVP, just buy the book and join us! That is the joy of my life, it’s so damn easy.”
Events like these monthly book clubs, in addition to reader series and partnerships with local groups like Women of Color Forward, are integral to the central mission of Cafe con Libros: “provid[ing] space for anyone seeking a community of readers and thinkers and, to spread the love of reading as a source of healing and joy.”
Because of this, Kalima ensures all partners who wish to use her space understand her core mission. “I want a space for everyone to come in, so programming is free or we don’t collaborate. I just can’t, you know? I’m sticking to that.”
Kalima’s store, books clubs, community events— that’s just her side hustle. Outside of that, she is still a practicing social worker and a teacher and faculty advisor at her alma mater, the Hunter College School of Social Work. I had to ask the most clichéd of questions: how does she do it all?
Kalima responds with a hearty laugh, followed a typically thoughtful stance. “If you have the privilege and the luxury — and that’s important, it is a privilege and a luxury — to do what you love, do it. It feels less like work and more like a life purpose. That’s number one: I bring more energy to it because it’s my life’s purpose.
“Number two is that am very good at organizing, prioritizing, and compartmentalizing my life. So writing a to-do list that includes one aspect of each part of my life and really committing to doing all of that in one day, and not beating myself up if I can’t get to it all.
“And three: I ask for help when I need help. I seek out ideas, I’m always buzzing with new ideas, new energy, new knowledge, new experiences that I’m bringing to the work.”
All photos by Chris Setter. Art by Steve Mosley.
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