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Inside Cafe con Libros pre-pandemic / Photography by Ryan Cameron

It’s OK Not to Be OK

COVID-19 #SmallBizSpotlight | Kalima DeSuze of Cafe con Libros is doing her best to stay in business, but it’s not easy. Published: April 28, 2020

Programming note: This article is part of a weekly column on small businesses in New York during COVID-19. To get #SmallBizSpotlight articles straight to your inbox, sign up here. You'll receive one email every Tuesday afternoon. Thanks for reading!

I’ve been talking to small business owners for five weeks now. (Has it felt like five weeks to you? Me neither.) At the outset, I expected a lot of tough, depressing, and even cynical conversations; but surprisingly, almost everyone has been resolutely positive. They’re worried, of course, but not broken. This crisis is hitting different sectors in chaotic and unpredictable ways, but it’s hitting everyone, and there’s something galvanizing about the collective reckoning.

When I reached out to Kalima DeSuze of Cafe con Libros, a feminist bookstore/café in Crown Heights, she was reluctant to be interviewed. She told me she’s overwhelmed and struggling to manage her business online and suggested she’s not the best person to feature. I replied that this series isn’t just for stories of astounding success and resilience: it’s about what the pandemic looks and feels like — good, bad, and ugly — for small businesses and the people behind them.

DeSuze ended up talking to me, and I’m so grateful she did. As comforting as it is to hear from businesses that are maintaining steady sales, it’s important to remember that many are not. This isn’t to say that Cafe con Libros is going under — sales are still trickling in, and luckily, DeSuze doesn’t have a staff to pay (she and her husband run the shop alone). But business isn’t nearly as good as it was, and she’s scared about long-term viability. Below, our conversation about the pitfalls of social media, marketing in a pandemic, and the book that’s keeping her up at 3 a.m.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

On top of Cafe con Libros, you work full-time at Hunter College. How do you make that work?
Oh God, I am so tired. Balancing has been a struggle from day one because not only do I have a business and work full-time, I also have a toddler. I'm trying to redefine what balance looks like, exploring what it means to have a harmonious life that may be out of balance at times. Before COVID-19, it was tough for many reasons. We are a coffee shop/bookstore on a side street, so drawing people to the store on a daily basis is a full-time job.

And now with COVID-19, there’s so much energy that I have to put into marketing the business on social media. And I struggle with social media. I'm 40 years old. I'm not interested. I think it's performative. I think it's manipulative. People are telling me to do Instagram Live and I'm like, “Are you serious, adding one more thing to my plate?” I know that I have to do it, but I just have to say, it's a really tough time.

You spoke about some of those difficulties on a recent podcast episode. Is that a medium you feel optimistic about?
I love everything about my podcast. I love doing it, interviewing folks, talking about books. I do think that it's a good medium to get messaging out.

How are your book sales?
I’m very grateful for what we do get. We don't get as many as some of our friends [in the industry], but we get some. Sometimes I look at booksellers on Instagram and they say they have 100 orders in a day and I’m like, “Where are they getting 100 people from?” Of course they probably have a team of people helping them get the word out, but I feel jealous and inadequate looking at their bomb-ass Instagram pages.

With your doors closed, where are you focusing your business efforts?
This time has given me an opportunity to think about a sustainable model, and what that would look like. What does it mean to live through a pandemic and land on your feet? I was in the military in South Korea when 9/11 happened, so I didn't experience it here. This is my first time dealing with an emergency like this, asking, What protects me? What makes me vulnerable? And so I'm definitely going to change things when I reopen.

What does it mean to live through a pandemic and land on your feet?

What changes are you imagining?
[Before COVID-19,] coffee sales yielded the most profits. Now that the coffee is gone and I am relying on the bookstore, I am imagining how to market the books with more intention. The business was heavily reliant on one thing; when that one thing is gone, what happens? I need to find more balance between the books and the coffee.

Have you applied for any stimulus packages?
I have not, only because at this point, I am able to supplement with emergency funds, and my landlord is family, so I am in a fortunate place when it comes to [rent]. But if I run out, I will be knocking on the government's door.

How do you think the community is going to come back after this?
Our customers are activists, they're progressive, they’re savvy. When things open up, they are going to flood — not just my business, but every business in the neighborhood — with love because they understand on a deeper level what their support means in the long term. It is going to be great.

Last question: what book are you turning to for comfort?
I'm reading Homegoing for our book club and I am so wrapped up. I was reading it at 3 o'clock this morning.

How you can help:

Until next time,

Curated By

Frances Thomas

Quiddity Content Editor

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