El Taller bookstore and cafe in Lawrence, Massachusetts

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El Taller bookstore and cafe started in 2012 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The store has had great success over the years, with its dual offerings of a family-run Mexican restaurant and a warm, welcoming bookstore proving to be an unstoppable combination. Although they love their literary inclinations, the food offered is still an important part of El Taller’s past, present, and future. The store has been a hub for a thriving literary and cultural community over the years, with many dedicated customers.

I spoke with Y-Binh Nguyen of El Taller Books and learned about the illustrious history of the store. “Lawrence is a city of low-income, mostly Latinx immigrants, which makes it very important to have cultural spaces here,” says Y-Binh. El Taller serves as a one-stop-shop for the city’s arts and cultural programming, hosting numerous open mics, writing workshops, and community conversations about what it means to be people of color in the city. The store embraces and supports social movements that its customers care about, and they frequently host events to support local artists and writers. Theatrical performances have also been on the program in the past.

The community ethos also extends to their partnerships, as El Taller works closely with the Essex Arts Center, Lawrence Public Library and schools, 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 have a metallurgical workshop in Mexico. More than that, however, the store has become a workshop for like-minded people to come together, bond and brainstorm ideas.

Y-Binh points out how Lawrence’s various artistic organizations all intersect. The popular “writing cafes” of El Taller sprung up because a local literary magazine held articles there; the idea took root and grew. Even during the pandemic, these cafes continued on Zoom when necessary. “Having food helps,” Y-Binh laughs. “We can be a cultural space where people can come together, eat and talk about big ideas.”

This concern for community has proven to be a two-way street in recent years. When the pandemic hit, El Taller delivered hot meals with aid organizations to Lawrence, sold book subscriptions and welcomed donations from wealthier patrons. “We tried everything,” she says. “From contactless delivery to takeaway. We really solidified our online presence and hosted our online writing workshops at a time when people were really looking for community spaces that they couldn’t have. They certainly faced challenges, but their perseverance and determination to continue serving Lawrence paid off.

As COVID restrictions continue to lift, El Taller looks 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 a focus on somatic activities that focus on physical presence after a si long separation. Y-Binh is also excited to continue working with local artists, which she says keeps the store’s presence “organic, innovative and fresh.”

When asked what attracts customers and keeps them there, Y-Binh highlights how they manage the space. “These days, people want to know that the spaces they frequent are in line with their ideological beliefs. We make these bold statements and make no apologies about who we host. Book curations focused on the work of authors BIPOC, queer and disabled to ensuring publishers send them books focused on authors with marginalized identities, El Taller ensures those who enter understand that the space they are in is welcoming. most free programs so that their clients are not discouraged by financial obstacles.

Yet even with all their attempts to publicize the ethos of their space, 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 recalls. “I think there was maybe one book in total by a person of color and one book that was adamantly anti-queer. They apologized for that, but I can’t even understand the oversight there. The store continues to seek out color designer books, indicating the broader trend of glaring whiteness in publishing. “It’s changing, but very slowly,” says Y-Binh.

In terms of book sales trends, El Taller’s customers followed a familiar pattern: Everyone was reading “apocalyptic” books, like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. As this faded, clients turned more to books on healing justice and teaching. Y-Binh herself recommends the fantasy novel Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse and Matthew Salesses Crafting in the real world. It 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 center for the Lawrence community.

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All images courtesy of Y-Binh Nguyen.

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