July 28, 2016
By Eli Rosenberg
Under the peeling platform of the No. 7 train along the border of Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in Queens, past the vendors selling necklaces and bracelets, the ears of corn and skewers of meat smoking atop grills rigged on shopping carts, and down a side street, there is a mural of Gabriel García Márquez adorning a small store.
It is Librería Barco de Papel, one of a dwindling number of Spanish-language bookstores in New York.
There is something vaguely Marquezian about it, with its side-street location, its shelves lined with used books, some rare, curios piled haphazardly on top, the feeling that the small store is somehow much larger than the sum of its dusty parts. The shop, whose name means Paper Boat, emits an analog intellectualism from another era.
The proprietor, Ramón Caraballo, opened the shop in 2003 after years of saving money as a sidewalk bookseller. Sitting in a chair in the center of the bookstore on a recent Friday evening, Mr. Caraballo spoke with customers as jazz played quietly. “Tell me, what is culture?” he asked a visitor.
It was a simple question that is not easily answered, but is an important one for the store, which despite its modest size, doubles as a cultural center dedicated to celebrating the traditions, literary and otherwise, of Latin America; roughly half of Jackson Heights’ 67,000 residents identify as Latino.
Events in the last year included talks and readings with an Argentine illustrator, a Cuban troubadour and two Peruvian writers. In addition to a full selection of Latin American writers, the shelves are stocked with literature from Spain, ranging from medieval literature to contemporary works.
One recent afternoon, a small crowd gathered outside to see Zenen Zeferino, a singer, guitar player and children’s book author from Mexico. Clad in a white guayabera and a straw hat, Mr. Zeferino was joined by another guitarist and a dancer in a flowing blue dress on a small wooden platform as they performed jarocho, a style of folk music from Veracruz.
Mr. Zeferino said his music was for the “people that have come to work but also don’t want their children to lose the links to our land.”
His voice, punctuated by the rhythm of the dancer, broke through area’s bustle, as passers-by paused to listen, undistracted by the intermittent rumbling of the train.
Hernando Cuervo, 65, a taxi driver from Jackson Heights and a regular at the bookstore, sat watching the show. “Here, people come to work and produce and forget where they come from,” said Mr. Cuervo, a native of Colombia. "It’s very important for people,” he said, “to have the opportunity to reconnect with their roots.”
This is one aim of Librería Barco de Papel, which is in one of the most diverse areas of the city. Mr. Caraballo, the proprietor, phrased the tension faced by many New Yorkers this way: “You are what you brought from your country? Or you are what you learned here?”
Mr. Caraballo said the purpose of the shop, run with the help of volunteers, was to show “our riches, our cultural values,” while leaving room for ideas to grow. The jarocho performance was followed by theater, poetry, music and an open-mike session put on with Instituto Cervantes revolving around a theme of identity.
Mr. Caraballo ticked off two other Spanish-language bookstores, Librería Lectorum and Librería Macondo, which he said connected literature to culture in a way that he hoped to keep alive. Both closed locations on 14th Street in Manhattan in 2007.
“I feel like the last Mohican,” he said.
Source: The New York Times