The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. This month, we’re talking with Kalima DeSuze, the owner of coffee shop and feminist bookstore Cafe con Libros, about leading as an introvert, creating community, and transferring skillsets from nonprofits to business.
When Kalima DeSuze launched the coffee shop and feminist bookstore Cafe con Libros in 2017, she wasn’t trying to fill a need or solve a problem. The Brooklynite wanted to open a bookshop in her hometown to spark her creativity and pursue her passion for books — an interest ignited by her mother’s love for literature.
Along the way, she has built an active community of customers who enjoy the curated selection of titles by women of color, the coffee (a dirty chai latte with lavender and oat milk is among the shop’s most popular orders), or a mix of both.
“[Coffee and books are] two things that really will bring people together. Every coffee shop has [its] regulars, and you get to build it,” DeSuze tells Refinery29 Somos. We’ve seen entire families expand. We’ve seen families break up. We’ve seen divorces. We’ve seen marriages. You see people move out of the community and move back in. We’ve seen so much because we have paired these two.”
She’s been privy to these vignettes of people’s lives simply because she wanted something for herself outside of her nine-to-five. DeSuze, who earned degrees in social work, began working in nonprofits to effect change through policy and community organizing. But in the last five years, she switched her focus to Cafe con Libros.
Entrepreneurship hasn’t come easily, especially as the pandemic affected other bookstores, but DeSuze has been able to thrive, all while giving marginalized groups a platform. The walls of her shop feature books from underrepresented voices — ranging from Alice Walker and Jesmyn Ward to Helen H. Wu and Lizz Huerta.
The Panamanian-American shop owner has prioritized immigrant and diasporic stories as well as those from Africa. “I am really focused on uplifting stories … from the African continent and within the Latinx diaspora and the Asian diaspora because I feel like women’s stories from these three major identity groups have been particularly silenced [and] reduced to stories that are not important or not representative of social conditions.”
Cafe con Libros does not take up too much real estate on Prospect Place. As a matter of fact, it has a smaller selection than traditional bookshops. Yet, the shop has made a significant impact with DeSuze at its helm. From setting boundaries as an introvert to drawing on her past work, DeSuze outlines how she built up the thriving bookstore.
You don’t have to be an extrovert to be an entrepreneur.
While being an extrovert, or someone who feels energized around others, can prove useful for entrepreneurs, it is not a prerequisite. DeSuze is an introverted business owner, which means she’s the face of her company, even when she may not want to be.
Since interacting with others can feel draining, DeSuze has set limits for herself and her team. For one, she comes into the shop just a few times a week. “I’m not in the store often because I just don’t have the capacity,” she says. “I can be there maybe two or three times a week, but beyond that, I just can’t. I would not be able to do that.”
Like many introverts, she is also candid about avoiding conversations that aren’t necessary. Since she doesn’t have a designated office in the shop, it can be hard to avoid customers eager to chat with her. Staying away from the store allows her to focus on the projects that need her attention.
DeSuze is honest: The entrepreneur says neither she nor her staff of nine has entirely found the correct balance, but it’s something she’s constantly working to improve. “As a business owner, there’s [this idea] that you’re always on and always available,” she adds. “I think that’s a very, very high expectation for a person, but [especially] for a person like me, who needs that distance. [It’s difficult] to take care of myself as an introvert in a very public space.”
Your skills are transferable.
DeSuze didn’t know everything about running a business before launching Cafe con Libros, but she did have years of work experience from which she could draw. Mostly, DeSuze has worked in nonprofits, where she picked up valuable skills that have helped her as an entrepreneur.
“I did not go to school for business. I have a master's in social work and public administration. That taught me some aspects of business management, but it’s definitely from a nonprofit side and not from a capitalistic side,” she says. “I’m coming into this with a bit of a deficit, and I’m proud of the way I’ve responded to it. Sometimes I’m like, ‘This is so hard,’ but then say, ‘Yeah, it’s hard, but it’s not impossible.’ I just take it one little tiny chunk at a time, and that's a social work skill.”
Her previous experience particularly comes in handy when she feels overwhelmed or runs into challenges. “My social work degree does help because it does inform the way I make decisions and how I solve problems,” she says. Her professional background helps her to think about things that might not be top of mind for business graduates, like how to take care of yourself, not just the company, and how to problem-solve in the moment. “[I] compartmentalize. [I decide] what little chunk of this can we take now and what parts of it can we control, what parts of it do we need to let go, and what parts of this do we need to outsource.”
Embrace community in a way that makes sense to you.
Building community is an important aspect of Cafe con Libros. DeSuze wanted her shop to mix coffee and books to engage her customers, but she has also made thoughtful decisions along the way, including intentionally creating a space with a specific audience in mind. “We’re unapologetic about it,” she says. “The bookstore is small, [and it’s meant for] the folks who are easily overwhelmed or who maybe have processing issues or something like that. The way [we organized the store is] doable for them.”
As with many other businesses, the pandemic forced DeSuze to pivot, but she kept her community at the forefront the entire time. For Cafe con Libros, this meant showing their customers they weren’t alone. Communication became even more important, especially as the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement converged. “One of the main things that I feel like we did was we communicated a lot with our community base,” she says. The shop started a newsletter that focused on community care, self-care, and community responsibility and accountability. Knowing that people were also leaving their homes less often, the Cafe con Libros team doubled down on their customer service. They wanted people to feel welcome and valued, so they could feel the trip to the shop was worth their time.
But for DeSuze, community includes more than just Cafe con Libro’s patrons. She has also teamed up with other bookstores to make events even more impactful. “We’ve been more targeted and more intentional about our events and partner with other bookstores,” she adds. “[There’s that] feeling like we need to be in competition with other bookstores, instead of in collaboration with them to platform major artists or even like up-and-coming debut authors. If we come together and we host an event and we can bring 100 people to learn about this book, I think it’s something for us to be proud of.”