I spoke with Y-Binh Nguyen of El Taller Books, and learned about the store’s illustrious history. “Lawrence is a low-income, predominantly Latinx immigrant city, which makes it very important to have cultural spaces here,” Y-Binh says. El Taller serves as a one-stop shop for arts and cultural programming in the city, holding many open mics, writing workshops, and community conversations about what it means to be people of color in the city. The store embraces and supports the social movements their patrons care about, and they frequently hold events to support local artists and writers. Theater performances have been on the docket in the past as well.
The ethos of community extends into their partnerships as well, as El Taller works closely with the Essex Arts Center, Lawrence Public Library and schools, the Addison Art Gallery, Breadloaf, and more. “Community partners are how we’ve been able to stay afloat during the pandemic,” Y-Binh remarks. El Taller translates to workshop; indeed, the founders own a metal workshop in Mexico. More than that, though, the store has become a workshop for like-minded individuals to come together, create kinship, and formulate ideas.
Y-Binh emphasizes how the various arts organizations in Lawrence are all intersected. El Taller’s popular “writing cafes” began because a local literary magazine held write-ins there; the idea took hold and expanded. Even during the pandemic, these cafes have continued on Zoom when necessary. “Having the food helps,” Y-Binh says, laughing. “We can be a cultural space where people can convene, eat, and talk about big ideas.”
This care for community showed itself to be a two-way street in the past few years. When the pandemic hit, El Taller delivered hot meals with aid organizations in Lawrence, sold book subscriptions, and welcomed donations from wealthier patrons. “We tried everything,” she says. “From contactless delivery to takeout food. We really solidified our online presence, and held our writing workshops online during a time when people were really looking for community spaces that they couldn’t have.” They certainly faced some struggles, but their perseverance and determination to continue serving Lawrence paid off.
As COVID restrictions continue to lift, El Taller is looking forward to bringing back more in-person events. Community gatherings like open mics, dance events, and writing retreats are high on their list of offerings to restart, with an emphasis on somatic activities that focus on being physically present after so long apart. Y-Binh is also excited about continuing to work with local artists, which she feels keeps the store’s presence “organic, innovative, and new.”
When asked what draws patrons in and keeps them there, Y-Binh points to the way they curate the space. “These days, people want to know that the spaces they are patroning are in line with their ideological beliefs. We make these statements boldly, and we are unapologetic in who we welcome.” From book curations focusing on work by BIPOC, queer, and disabled authors to ensuring publishers send them books focusing on authors with marginalized identities, El Taller makes sure those who enter understand the space they are in is welcoming. They aim to keep most programming free so their customers aren’t deterred by financial barriers.
Yet even with all their attempts to make their space’s ethos known, the publishing industry remains out of touch. “I was away for six months, and when I came back, we had tons of books to open,” Y-Binh remembers. “I think there was maybe one total book by a person of color, and one book that was adamantly anti-queer. They apologized for it, but I can’t even understand the oversight there.” The store continues to have to dig for books by creatives of color, which points to the broader trend of publishing’s glaring whiteness. “It’s changing, but really slowly,” says Y-Binh.
In terms of bookselling trends, El Taller’s patrons have followed a familiar pattern: everyone was reading “apocalyptic” books, such as Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. As that died down, customers moved more towards books about healing justice and teaching. Y-Binh herself recommends the fantasy novel Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, and Matthew Salesses’ Craft in the Real World. She also highlights a children’s book, Dreamers by Yuyi Morales.
With their community at the forefront of what they do, El Taller has a very bright future as a landmark and cultural hub of the Lawrence community.
All images courtesy of Y-Binh Nguyen.
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