The topics discussed at its annual book club gatherings varied from how Cuba won its independence from Spain to its early days as a republic to how the island once called “the Pearl of the Caribbean” was crushed by a Communist revolution.
The gatherings took place every December at Miami’s premier Cuban exile bookstore, Librería Universal on Calle Ocho. That’s where a large group of exiled intellectuals gathered to dream out loud of a future for Cuba that hasn’t arrived and where every day exiles bought their books about the real Cuba, not the Fidel Castro regime’s version of it.
In recent years, the December literary circles acquired a more sentimental tone. “We would talk about the members of the group who were missing,” says Juan Manuel Salvat, 73, owner of the famed bookstore at 3090 SW Eighth St.
Showcased behind Salvat’s desk on the bookstore’s second floor is a collection of his favorite books, which chronicle the history of Miami’s Cuban exile — and of Cuba — published in the last half century under the Universal Editions seal. Glancing over the book spines he suddenly realizes that most of the authors, many who came into exile due to Castro’s 1959 Cuban Revolution, are dead.
It all ends in June when Libreria Universal, Miami’s first Spanish-language bookseller, closes its doors forever. “Miami’s historic exile is dying off,” acknowledges Salvat. And with it, he adds, his customer base.
The children of those Cuban who fled the island now read in English and the newer waves of Cubans are focused on surviving: “They are not thinking of books.”
When Salvat turns off the lights on this piece of Spanish-language literary culture he created and nourished in Miami, the Cuban exile will mark the end of another tradition that helped them preserve their history, customs and traditions, as captured by authors who found at Universal a place to be published for a loyal audience.
“A chapter of the historic exile is ending, but that does not mean that the ideals will disappear,” says a hopeful Father Juan Luis Sánchez, a Catholic priest who settled in the United States in 1962 at age 14 and, like other bookstore faithful, visited Universal last week.
The closing of this bastion of Cuban heritage marks the inevitable transition of generations. It also reflects the impact of the digital age on the book industry.
Libreria Universal’s birth and end also illustrates the road traveled by the exile community. At first, Salvat recalls the bookstore’s existence in Miami was seen as temporary. There would be a free Cuba and everyone would return home. Then, when that dream began to dissipate, exiles began to grow roots here, but without losing their connection to the island across the Florida Straits. They fed that need at the bookstore that catered to their desire to preserve the sensibilities of a pre-Revolution Cuba.
Salvat launched his business in 1965 with an incipient inventory of Spanish-language books about Cuba — he sold them among friends through the mail. Later he opened a bookstore and offered distribution services to universities and public libraries. The expatriate authors lacked the means to see their work in print by a publisher. Following the dream of rescuing those manuscripts, he founded a publishing arm, Ediciones Universal, whose catalog includes 1,600 titles.
The books captured the Cuban exiles’ success stories and how they helped change South Florida’s ethnic, entrepreneurial and cultural profile. Naturally, the children and grandchildren of those who make up the “historic exile” incorporated into the mainstream culture, , but kept the flame of their identity burning. Yet language and culture also diluted with the passing of generations, opening the road to assimilation.
Add to the mix newer Cuban exiles, educated under a communist regime aimed at erasing Cuba’s pre-Castro history.
Juan Antonio Blanco Gil, executive director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Initiatives at Miami Dade College, agrees that Libreria Universal is another victim of demographic changes.
“I believe that not only exiled Cubans read less. Everybody reads less,” says the 65-year-old academic, who came from the island in 1997.
His main concern is that with the bookstore’s disappearance, its collection will also fade – its treasured volumes cannot be found elsewhere. “The access to a historic source of information is lost because those books are not digitalized,” he said.
One way or the other, Salvat has two months to sell or donate half a million copies of books stored in the warehouse. The building, a physical and spiritual point of reference for Cubans, has been sold.
Salvat hopes his decades-old collection will one day reemerge in bookstores and libraries in a free Cuba.
“The richness of those books published in exile could one day be taken back to the island and used to reconnect Cubans to the beliefs of the island’s founders — something that has been forgotten and altered for so many years,” Salvat said.