This post includes affiliate links to independent bookstores.
When I started LeyendoLatam, I knew my Mexico bias would come through, especially at first. It’s the Latin American country I live in and know best, after all. So, to balance out my content somewhat, I sent a message to all my friends and acquaintances that lived in (or had lived in) Latin America – from Uruguay to Argentina, Puerto Rico to Peru — asking for their literary recommendations.
Among them was the excellently incisive food writer Alicia Kennedy, who writes excellently incisive newsletters. It was Kennedy who recommended Libros787, the San Juan, Puerto Rico bookstore that’s made a name for itself as the place for the Puerto Rican diaspora to get their fix of Puerto Rican literature. And so, obviously, I had to write about it.
In the aftermath of Hurricane María, the 2017 storm that decimated Puerto Rico, Libros787 was founded by Carlos Goyco and Gerardo Enríquez. Taking its name from the San Juan dialling code, well-known to any Puerto Rican living off the island, Libros787 came about with two main motivations in mind: the first was to bridge the gap between the diaspora and Puerto Rican literature, while the second stemmed from the need to make literature and bookstores accessible in Puerto Rico.
“We decided to found Libros787 because we understand literature as a way of connecting with others, and that’s what we ultimately wanted to achieve: a community within Puerto Rican literature and the diaspora, a connection between literature and its readers,” the Libros787 team told me over email, after I messaged them on Instagram.
Getting books from Puerto Rican publishers into the hands of those living in other countries and regions was also a big driving factor. “A lot of books that were published by editorial houses on the island weren’t available for people outside the island, and so a lot of these books became ‘invisible’. There wasn’t an accessible outlet for writers to promote their books, but that didn’t mean that there weren’t readers interested in them.”
Among those publishing houses, Libros787 highlighted both Editorial Destellos, a children’s book publisher, and Publicaciones Gaviota as two that are doing interesting things right now, adding that “[due to the pandemic], we’ve seen a sort of pattern developing; a lot of writers have chosen to publish independently. While that doesn’t mean editorials have stopped publishing…it means that the influx of new literary works has continued, which we consider an incredible feat.”
Nowadays, three years on and with two new staff members — Ariana Vega and Carlos Laboy — Libros787 is weathering another storm: the covid-19 pandemic. “The pandemic has been hard for everyone,” they wrote. “But because we’re a virtual bookstore, we’ve been able to fill the gaps for readers who are used to visiting bookstores.” Since the start of the pandemic, Libros787 has actually seen growth within their readership, despite having to temporarily hit pause on international shipping. Currently, around 45% of their orders come from the States and 55% are from readers in Puerto Rico, although Libros787 books have previously travelled as far as South America, Central America, and Europe.
As far as the Puerto Rican literary scene goes – something I would have loved the opportunity to discover during my cancelled (for obvious reasons) April 2020 trip – most bookstores, some of which specialise in specific genres, are concentrated in the metropolitan area, according to Libros787. In fact, it’s this “dispersed…definitely not saturated” literary scene, as well as their wide range of books spanning multiple genres, that the team think has helped them develop such a loyal customer base. And the fact they only knew of one other pre-pandemic, online-only bookstore based in Puerto Rico surely helped them get an overseas foothold too. (Although now, per their email, “more bookstores have transitioned to offering an online service as well, which is amazing because there will always be readers hungry for more.”)
And what Boricua writers do they recommend for the curious reader? El día que me venció el olvido by Edmaris Carazo; Sirena Selena by Mayra Santos Febres (which has also been translated into English by Stephen Lytle); Historias de mujeres puertorriqueñas negras by Rosario Méndez Panedas; Las negras by Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro; and Siempre en viernes by Sandra Colorado.
Of those, “we think it’d be really helpful to have an English translation of Historia de mujeres puertorriqueñas negras, due to its relevance within our culture and the diaspora. We also believe that an English translation of Edmaris Carazo’s novel [which tells the story of three generations of women] could attract new readers because it explores significant topics that are present in modern society.”
Looking ahead, Libros787 – the bookstore that was born from a hurricane and is thriving during a pandemic – has tentative plans for a fixed location at some point and hinted at the possibility of starting their own publishing imprint. But for now the bookstore bringing Boricua literature to the world wants to “keep amplifying Hispanic Literature and make it accessible to diverse readers…we want Puerto Ricans to have access to literature, to know about literary projects both on and off the island, to expose them to new authors, and through this, we hope to inspire reading habits in our culture… ultimately, we hope to become a beacon of literature for book lovers throughout the entire world.”
This post is based on an email interview, conducted in English at my request, with the team at Libros787. Some of the answers have been altered for clarity and length.