AGÜEYBANÁ Bookstore

PUERTO RICAN: BOOKSART●MUSIC

Agüeybaná Bookstore was the brainchild of culturist/declamador Sery Colón, who opened his shop heralding the arrival of “el Cacique” in Sunset Park, Brooklyn on October 30th, 1993. The store was open for about five years at two different locations (1993-98, in Brooklyn then Manhattan), but the impact and significance of its brief presence for the Latino community in New York City cannot be measured.

Colón’s fascination with books and culture began in early adolescence. He liked to read and watch television, and was naturally drawn to the discipline of drama and performance. His mother, always supportive of her son’s passion for theater and the arts, encouraged Sery to pursue his acting dreams and he began working to take lessons under the tutelage of Onix Báez and Eric Santamaría.

The family moved to New York City when Sery was about twelve, but kept their island ties strong by making frequent family trips back to the place they called “home”. It was during these recurrent visits that Sery would scour the island for books of poetry and plays to bolster his acting skills and develop his cultural knowledge base. Through his acting studies, he discovered the works of Federico García Lorca, who became his favorite writer.

As he learned more about the enchanted island’s rich folklore, Colón became fascinated with Borikén’s esoteric history and fell subject to its inescapable spell. His growing awareness of boricua culture inspired him to showcase all that Puertorro had to offer in his ongoing journey as a salesman.

Feeling unfulfilled with his day job, Colón decided to start selling folkloric art [posters & prints], books and music part-time as a way to supplement his income. He slowly began establishing connections with artisans, writers and vendors on the island to build an inventory, and then would sell the merchandise at street festivals (like el barrio’s “Annual 116th Street Festival”) and other cultural gatherings throughout the city (wherever he was permitted to table his wares). Although his primary focus was on books, he began his journey by selling posters.

It was during one of his buying trips to Old San Juan that he met and became friends with the distinguished artist Luis Germán Cajigas. Shortly after their acquaintance, Sery began to promote and sell Cajigas’ works at various events in New York City. He met Andrés Jiménez, “El Jíbaro”, in a similar manner and began promoting El Jíbaro’s music on cassettes as well. While selling on the road, Sery discovered that there was a real demand for his inventory of PR cultural items and, without missing a beat, began planning the opening of his dream store.

By 1993, Colón decided to open a new business near his home in Brooklyn and launched his first store at 5210 Fourth Avenue called, Agüeybaná – Puerto Rican: Books●Art●Music. [named after the Taíno Cacique/tribal chief from Borikén] The store’s reputation quickly spread throughout the five boroughs and within a few months the modestly stocked bookstore had morphed into a fully fledged performance space.

“Boricuas…An Anthology” edited by Roberto Santiago – signed at Agüeybaná Bookstore on October 18, 1995

Colón’s decision to expand the venue for readings and book-signings all began with a casual conversation. A fellow artist/poet by the name of Julio Axel Landrón was searching for a space to present his poetry and was having difficulty finding a suitable place. Recognizing the poet’s dilemma, Sery offered to host the event at his fledgling store without hesitation and Julio gratefully accepted. Landrón went on to become the first artist to recite at Agüeybaná on March 18th, 1994, baptizing the space as the new cultural performance center for Boricuas in NYC.

The small Brooklyn storefront would go on to host many recitals, book-signings and readings that featured artists and writers including: Piri Thomas, the Welfare Poets, Sandra María Esteves, Jesús Papoleto Meléndez, Marina Ortiz, Jack Agüeros, William Quintin Ross, and Jorge Matos Valldejuli. It remained open for about a year-and-a-half serving the Sunset Park community until Colón decided to relocated his operation to a larger space in Manhattan’s east village. (This was due to the facility’s limitations and an increased demand for events).

[Flyers: Courtesy of the Sery Colón Archives]

In 1995, Sery Colón relocated his shop to 192 Avenue B in the heart of Loisaida.  At the time, gentrification was booming in the neighborhood as the local residents continued their struggle to survive; still, the community gratefully welcomed the arrival of Sery’s bookstore with open arms. Many of the locals drew strength from the shop’s settlement in the community. (as one resident put it, “discovering Agüeybaná in the east village was like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert”.)

Top photo: Jack Agüeros, Piri Thomas, José Cheguí Torres & Sery Colón
(Photo by Wilfredo Irizarry)
[Photograph & news clippings courtesy of the Sery Colón Archives]

A mecca for transplanted Boricuas, Loisaida had been in dire need of a Puerto Rican library for some time. The Tompkins Square Public Library (which was literally about 2 blocks away) offered very little information about PR culture when compared to the range of topical books and materials that Agüeybaná had to offer. In addition, the mere presence of a cultural bookstore on Avenue B between East 11th and 12th Street, in itself, was a sign of defiance and resiliency during a time of great challenge in the neighborhood.

[Photo: José O. González]

Colón’s bookstore became a uniquely special gathering spot for people to shop, network and chat about culture in a convivial setting. When you entered the store, the room felt like you had walked into a holistic healing center. The muted lavender walls and subtle sounds of cuatro y güiro music in the background gave the space an atmosphere of peace and tranquility that elicited mental images of meditation temples and clandestine islands. Historic posters hung on the walls surrounding the lined bookcases that were filled with rare books, artwork and tapes on Boricua and Taíno culture (replete with Cemís, Guanins and güiros on the shelves). The spirit of the Cacique was felt throughout the ground floor at 192 Ave, B as you sauntered around the room taking in the cultural gems in that calming pseudo-museum.

Tato Laviera reading at Agüeybaná
[Photo: Courtesy of the Sery Colón Archives]

On the shelves were the books and writings of scribes that included: Jesus Colón, Carmen L. Justiniano, Ricardo Alegría, Julia de Burgos, Tato Laviera, Sandra María Esteves, Nicholasa Mohr, Teresa Ortiz, Piri Thomas, Jack Agüeros, Loida Figueroa, Miguel Piñero, Esmeralda Santiago, Miguel Algarín, José “Cheguí” Torres, Junot Díaz, Roberto Santiago, Victor Hernández Cruz, Pura Belpré, Willie Perdomo, Pedro Pietri, Jesús “Papoleto” Meléndez, Olga Jiménez de Wagenheim, and Bobby Gonzáles. VHS tapes were also displayed of “El Jibarito Rafael Hernández”, “Linda Sara”, “Mi Puerto Rico”, “Lamento Borincano”, “Raul Julia”, “The Puerto Rican Mambo”, “Our Latin Thing”, and “Roberto Clemente” along with cassette tapes by “El Jíbaro” Andrés Jiménez, Chuito “El de Bayamón”, Roy Brown, Ramito, Sylvia Rexach, El Gran Combo, and Lucecita Benítez, amongst others. You could buy posters, linocut prints, cards and framed lithographs by artist like Luis Germán Cajigas, Jaime Cruz, Ismael Rodríguez, Sandra María Esteves, Luis Cordero… and find rare publications and recordings such as Don Pedro Albizu Campos’ discurso sobre el “Día De La Raza”, “La Charca“ by Manuel Zeno Gandia, “La Carreta” by René Marqués, and “El Gibaro” by Manuel A. Alonso. This list is but a small sampling of what the Agüeybaná Bookstore had to offer the neighborhood and community-at-large.

[Flyer: Courtesy of the Sery Colón Archives]
Top Photo (Left-Right): Richie Flores, Sery Colón, Felipe Luciano & Tony Batista
Bottom Photo (Right): Sery Colón & Felipe Luciano

[Photos: José O. González]

In the back of the store was a small area where the special events took place (e.g., book-signings, recital, reading, musical performances, etc.). The walls were lined with artwork and a small PA system was usually set up with a microphone and stand in the front of the room for the poets, writers and musicians to perform their works. On one such occasion, Felipe Luciano delivered his fiery poetry to the accompaniment of percussionist Richie Flores and bassist Tony Batista. On another day the bill featured a roster of up-and-coming poets that included: Jorge Matos Valldejuli, William Quintin Ross, Osvaldo A. Rivera [AKA Flaco Navaja] and Ramón Serrano (“el Poeta del Pega’o”). Some of the events in the backroom were recorded to promote the artists’ works and memorialize the occasions.

[Flyer & Cassette: Courtesy of the Sery Colón Archives]

Poetry from “Puerto Rican Poetry From La Otra Isla“…recorded at Agüeybaná Bookstore in 1996

Desde La Cordillera Hasta El Altiplano” by Jorge Matos-Valldejuli

[click on play-button]

By the end of 1998, gentrification’s mounting pressures along with a changing population had taken their toll on the establishment and the bookstore was forced to shut its doors. Still, in its heyday, the cultural hub known as Agüeybaná was frequented by many teachers, professors, students, professionals, researchers and reporters, as well as abuelitas y abuelitos who helped spread the message of empowerment throughout the city… Celebrities like Jimmy Smits, Luis Guzmán, Roy Brown, Rosie Perez, Rosario Dawson, Nestor Torres, Nydia Velázquez, John Leguizamo, and all-star musician Willie Colón all crossed the threshold of that venerated Boricua bastion in Loisaida which continues to be sorely missed by many ’til this day… Agüeybaná, sin duda, dejó sus huellas en la isla de Mannahatta para siempre.  [Wm. Millán]

[Artwork by Ismael Rodríguez – Courtesy of the Sery Colón Archives]

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