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08/12/2013

President Obama, call this number. Tell them Raúl sent you.

Expo-Cuba-Libro_1
The patio at Cuba Libro. Havana's first post-revolutionary English-language bookstore is the brainchild of expatriate New Yorker Conner Gorry. (OnCubaMagazine.)

Congratulations to Conner Gorry, 43, an expatriate New Yorker who, in just a couple of years, has managed to accomplish what nearly a dozen U.S. presidents have conspicuously failed to do over the course of more than five decades.

She has come to terms with Cuba.

In Gorry’s case, those terms are primarily literary.

A free-lance journalist who has lived on the island since 2002, Gorry has now opened the country’s first post-revolutionary English-language bookstore, a literary café called Cuba Libro.

The name is a Spanish play on words, blending “libro” – the Castilian word for “book” – with the phrase Cuba Libre, which is both a Cuban cocktail (rum with cola and lime) and a political ideal, as in “Free Cuba.”

“For many foreigners, the idea of a vacation is associated with the reading of a book,” Gorry recently told Cuban journalist Rafael González Escalona, “and in Cuba you can only find English books about politics or history.”

That is, until now.

Gorry casts a wide literary net, and her shop carries English-language titles by Paul Coelho, Gabriel García Márquez, J. M. Coetzee, and Cormac McCarthy, as well as magazines including The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, and National Geographic.

Located at the corner of Calle 24 and Calle 19 in Vedado – a leafy and relatively prosperous Havana neighbourhood – Cuba Libro is yet another small but significant example of the liberal reforms now underway on the island since Raúl Castro succeeded his older brother, Fidel, as president.

For one thing, the store is a privately run business in a country that has long followed a wobbly path toward tropical socialism. For another, it’s a bookstore that doesn’t feel bound to reflect only Communist orthodoxy. While hardly counter-revolutionary, Gorry stocks books that reveal at least some of the bad about her adopted island home. One example, according to a recent Associated Press report, is Dancing With Cuba, a well-known memoir by famed Mexican journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, who recounts her experiences as a ballet instructor in Havana during the 1970s. The book’s depiction of Cuba is both engaging and honest, which is to say not wholly positive.

Gorry opened the store early this month, but says she has been nurturing the idea for at least a couple of years, ever since a girlfriend presented her with a bag filled with about 30 used books in English.

“I’m a writer,” Gorry says. “To throw out a book is a crime for me.”

More than just a shop, Cuba Libro is also a place to hang out, sip coffee or tea, and listen to music, which by proprietor's fiat does not include regguetón, the deep and thuddingly repetitive beat that many young Cubans nowadays prefer to timba or salsa.

There’s also a patio at the back, with a large hammock and a variety of comfortable chairs, perfect for quiet reading.

The shop also features showings by local visual artists. Currently on display is a selection of black-and-white photographs by Cuban photographer Alain Gutiérrez.

Gorry says she also wants to tend to the literary needs of the many Cubans who can’t afford to buy books outright, whether in English or in Spanish. For them, she plans to start a lending library that would operate at a very modest cost.

“I want this business to be ethically responsible,” she says.

That's yet another mark in her favour.

Someone at the White House should get on the phone right away and ask to speak to this displaced New Yorker who’s apparently solved the conundrum of Cuba-U.S. amity.

Here’s the number to call: 011-537-830-5205.

Ask for Conner Gorry and say, “Viva Cuba Libro.”

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star. His e-read about Cuba – entitled Cuba Libre – is available for purchase and downloading at starstore.ca and at stardispatchesitunes.ca.

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