Hop on the rug with us - and get to know how bookstore owner and activist María Herron lives life well.
Like many well-read New Yorkers, María Herron is a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the best-selling book written as a letter to the author’s 15-year-old son. There’s a section in it that guides a lot of how she lives her life. “[Coates] talks about time,” she says. “He talks about how you spend a third of your time asleep, a third of your time trying and a third of your time looking over your shoulder, so at what point in the day are you supposed to be at peace? At what point in the day are you supposed to learn trust? He was talking about in the context of his son, but he thinks about the amount of time he wants his son to not waste,” she says. “And so, for me, I promised myself years ago if I ever got a job, a dope job that allowed me to, I would do something more with my time.”
That “something more” is Mil Mundos, a bookstore in Bushwick that has become a vibrant part of the community in which it exists. Herron, who works as a camera tech and film colorist by day, opened the space, which is Bushwick’s first bilingual bookstore, in 2019. It’s also the only bookstore east of Myrtle Avenue in Bushwick, borne out of Herron wanting to squash the myth that bookstores are only “a Manhattan thing.”
The idea for Mil Mundos started taking shape in 2018, at a time when Herron began noticing the impact of gentrification in the neighborhood and further over in Queens, where Amazon wanted to build its headquarters – something she was actively against.
“I was thinking a lot about the idea of accessibility to my neighborhood, like, what would Bushwich need to look like if it was a place that I wanted to stay and grow old in?” she says. It made her think about what she was doing to help make the area the best it could be. “How do we create culture? How do we create community and neighborhood, for me, for you? If the quality of life and how members of your so-called community are living is not of concern to you then you are not in community with them,” she says.
Of culture and community
To Herron, Bushwick is more than just the place where she lives. She’s been there almost a decade, having grown up as a Cuban-American in upstate New York. “As a kid, after my mother's divorce, it was me and her, and we spent a lot of time with her family in Flushing. My kid upbringing - the most Latin moments in my life - happened with those people in Flushing. And when I moved to Bushwick, it really felt like Flushing, especially south Bushwick. You don't really go to bars, you go out on the block, and you turn your car radio on. I felt seen here, among other Latin people. I felt like I could live here for a long time.”
Herron wanted to play her part in contributing to the culture in Bushwick, but believed she would have more impact if she had a business. The idea for a bookstore had been percolating, after Herron had spent four years as part of the Bluestockings collective, the volunteer-run, collectively owned Manhattan bookstore known for emphasis on social justice. She wanted to bring a similarly-minded bookstore to Bushwick that would bring radical literature to her predominantly Latinx neighborhood. “People told me before I opened the store, ‘Bookstores aren't really a Latin thing,’ And I'm like, ‘Well, why are there bookstores in Latin America?’ Like, that's just incorrect.”
In setting up Mil Mundos, she focussed on making it welcoming and inviting. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the bookstore became a space where conversations about Black, Latinx and indigenous heritage could take place. Language classes were held there, and field-trips were run for local schools.
Much of that has had to change with the time we’re currently living through, but the philosophy at the heart of Herron’s business has not. Mil Mundos is run by a collective of 6 people, who all come from different backgrounds, and believe in contributing to the store so that it can be a bastion in the area. She doesn’t draw a salary and relies on friends if need be, for the extra kind of help that’s often necessary when it comes to running a brick-and-mortar business in New York.
Shifting with the times
Over the course of the pandemic, Mil Mundos has become a mutual aid depot for the local community, too, accepting and distributing essential items to families in need in the Bushwick area. She’s had to evolve the idea of the bookstore too. “Before the pandemic, we’d have this slam poetry series and the place would be packed!” she says. “I'm telling you, it would be winter and the heat would be off and the windows would be steaming and I would be making cafecito for people. Those are events that we're not going to have anymore. So we have to find other ways of engaging people and other ways of creating that magic.”
That same Mil Mundos energy that went into creating field trips where kids would come to the store and pick out a book is the same energy that responds to more urgent needs the community might have right now, like providing SIM cards so those children can use the internet for home schooling.
It all goes back to Coates’ writing. “All these struggles – this is kind of like a waste of peoples’ time, and prevents somebody from expressing themselves creatively,” says Herron. “We want to cut that, we want to really address that so that people can get back to reading, creating, writing, having conversations about, and being really engaged in, what’s going on.”