Cuba Libro, a coffee shop and bookstore in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, was set up by American journalist Conner Gorry in 2013. To this day, it remains the only English-language bookshop on the island and performs a valuable role in the community. We spoke to Gorry about life in Cuba and the philosophy and aims of her groundbreaking business.
You might be wondering how a health journalist who was born and raised in New York came to own a community bookstore in Havana. In an email interview, G0rry told us about her decision to trade the USA for Cuba.
“I didn’t move to Havana to start Cuba Libro. I moved to Havana for love, a job, and to escape the bellicose, violent post-9-11 USA,” she said. “The job was as a health journalist for MEDICC Review; the love interest became my husband, and now more than ever I am grateful every day that I don’t live in the United States.”
Alongside her work at Cuba Libro, Gorry has continued in her post as senior editor for MEDICC Review and written several books, giving her an in-depth knowledge of Cuban society. “A lot has changed in the 15-plus years I’ve lived here,” she said. “The biggest change is probably the mobility of Cubans – to travel, to buy and sell homes, to rent apartments, to open businesses.”
These changes came about due to an economic reform package that was introduced in 2010–11. While the reforms opened up certain sectors of the economy, some are calling for further changes. However, Gorry says that the existing program has had greater effects than many Cubans expected. “These reforms have really surpassed people’s wildest dreams,” she said. “There’s always room for more improvement, but this represents a huge change from former times.”
While tourists from around the world have been able to visit Cuba for years, a travel ban for US citizens was lifted only under President Obama. Being one of only a small number of Americans to have visited the island, and indeed made a life here, Gorry is well placed to provide some insight on the contrasts that exist between the two countries.
“Cuba is a wonderfully confusing and contradictory place, providing excellent fodder for for my writing and great food for the soul,” said Gorry. “I appreciate a government which attends (tries to, anyway) to the most vulnerable and has as a responsibility to its citizenry to provide free health, education, and housing, plus a food ration and all other kinds of subsidies. A world away from the rat race of NY in which I grew up!”
The books on offer at Cuba Libro run the gamut from renowned literary figures such as Fitzgerald, Bukowski, and Nabakov to pop-culture titans including Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. According to Gorry, the space is also frequented by tradespeople such as chefs searching for recipes, trainers looking for Sports Illustrated, and designers after interior magazines such as Dwell. However, Cuba Libro is far more than a place to buy books. It operates a coffee shop, offers free cultural events, and has a great garden where visitors can come and read for as long as they like. And Gorry takes her responsibilities to staff and the wider community seriously.
“I started Cuba Libro in 2013, once it became legal to open private businesses, to be able to show other entrepreneurs in Cuba that you can do good and do well, and that small business has a commitment to the community in which it works,” said Gorry. “We are a socially and ethically responsible business with all manner of underlying policies to address inequities, buoy the health and wellness of neighbors and customers, stem brain drain, support the local community, help local youth realize their dreams and projects, and help strengthen the social safety net.”
The business aims to be inclusive to all, regardless of whether they are Cuban residents or foreign visitors. As a safe space, Cuba Libro offers a sanctuary to everyone. “Folks know when they’re in our garden or our living room, they will not be harassed, bullied, or belittled; in short: they find home and family,” said Gorry.
Prices for books and coffee are low, plus you don’t have to consume anything to spend time in the space, and community outreach programs are designed to get as many people involved as possible. There are donation programs that support local hospitals and hurricane victims, and free cultural events and classes.
“Cuba Libro is like an extension of a Cuban home – people come here to study, make music, meet up with friends, rest in the garden hammocks before picking up the kids at school, to play chess, to read English books and magazines, to check out our art shows, to scoop up some free condoms and of course, to take Havana’s best coffee,” said Gorry.
If you make it to Cuba Libro on your trip to Havana, you will be struck by the laid-back atmosphere. It might be great for us visitors, but Gorry jokes that there can be a downside for her. “Some people get so comfortable, they wander out without paying,” she said. “People actually forget we’re a business.”
Tourists visiting Cuba should stop in to browse the shop’s magazines, talk to interesting locals, and explore its collection of books. There is even a selection of artwork by local artists, which is a great option for souvenirs, and you might even end up buying something by one of the future big names in Cuban art.
Cuba Libro is found in the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana, not far from the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) and other trendy spots. Spend a day getting to know the area, with lunch at Cuba’s first Iranian restaurant, Topoly, coffee at Cuba Libro, and drinks at FAC later on in the evening. It’s an intriguing place to visit on your trip, and it’s a great place for meeting Cubans in a friendly setting.