Books & Books provides more reading options in Spanish

Mila Hajjar, Ghislaine Demombynes, Andrés Hernández Alende, Norma Figueredo and Valentina Cano participate in the Cuentomanía contest at Books & Books.
Mila Hajjar, Ghislaine Demombynes, Andrés Hernández Alende, Norma Figueredo and Valentina Cano participate in the Cuentomanía contest at Books & Books. Courtesy/Nabil Hajjar

A decade ago, Books & Books in Coral Gables was lauded as being one one of the most complete and resourceful book stores in the area, but only for English language readers. Only a small space was set aside to display books in Spanish.

Now it is has one of the most extensive collection of bilingual book in South Florida, a nod to its close ties to the Hispanic market.

The new bond with Spanish language readers is largely due to the work of Gloria Noriega, a Mexican national who serves as director of Spanish language inventory at Books & Books, and also to the flexibility of Mitchell Kaplan, the owner of the book store. Kaplan saw the importance and staying power of the Spanish language book market in Miami and its surrounding areas.

Developing a presence in the market for books in Spanish has been an arduous and tedious labor in which book clubs, local author presentations and international guests have been called upon to participate.

As of late, creative meetings and an on-site writing contest titled Cuentomanía, have also been put in place. Cuentomanía, which debuted on Aug. 27th, is a contest involving a series of publicly read narratives. The finalists in the first round, who read their narratives in front of judges, were selected at the end of the event. The audience also submitted votes for their favorite reading.

“We wanted it to be a dynamic and entertaining event and more than anything, we wanted it to be fun,” said Noriega, who along with Chilean author José Ignacio Valenzuela and Peruvian writer Pedro Medina Leon, judged the participants’ entries.

Medina Leon added: “We wanted the narratives to be short, not longer than 1,300 words, and for the participant to read it out loud in front of the judges and the public to make the contest dynamic and lively.”

Among the 35 participants, 15 were selected as finalists.

The winner of the night was Mila Hajjar; the second place spot belonged to Ghislaine Demombynes. Hajjar now moves on to round two, in which she will read her narrative once again alongside the other finalists on Dec. 10th and is in the running to be one of the winners of the grand prize.

Demombynes will have to read alongside other second place winners, in hopes of being promoted to the finals.

The contest has been well received by the business community and obtained support from the Suburbano Ediciones publishing house, which is led by Medina Leon and will publish the winning text; the Betsy Hotel in Miami Beach, which will give the winner a three-night stay in the Writer’s Room, compliments of Pablo Cartaya, literary manager of the hotel; and Books & Books, which will award a $200 gift card to the first place winner.

“All of this is an experiment,” said Noriega. “In general, we’re having fun with it and in the end literature wins. We wanted it to be exciting and entertaining, something that would attract a varied public.”

Medina Leon said Books & Books is providing an interesting platform for the creation of literary movements.

“There are a lot people who write and don’t have a space to read their work or have it published so this is a way of giving them that space and motivating them,” he said.

Among the participants, said Noriega, “there’s known authors, others who have attended writing workshops and some who have self-published their books.” This is a sign of the wide appeal the contest has within the community.

Noriega, a public relations specialist, and lover of literature, has been working at the book store for seven years. She’s currently the director of Spanish language inventory at Books & Books and coordinates with authors invited to the Miami Book Fair to have their books offered at the store.

The Cuentomanía contest has a reality show component to it that’s very interesting, in essence it’s a literary reality show and that adds a necessary cultural component to the activity. That’s why the assisting public casts a secret vote and interacts with the participating writers.

“That’s what Pedro Medina and I wanted to do when we started thinking about doing a literary contest, we knew it had to be different and fun but without losing its cultural essence,” Noriega said.

The contest has been branded as having a modern air to it and has employed the latest technology and social media presence to engage with the public. Noriega says it’s about satisfying all clients: “Each time we have a better selection of books. We offer books from Spain, Mexico and Argentina, in an effort to meet client demands and give them what they can’t find on Amazon or online book stores.”

Books & Books currently hosts about 15 events in Spanish per month and about two or three a week. The growth can be noticed at the new Books & Books location at the Adrienne Arsht Center, which also hosts activities in Spanish, such as the Tomate una copa y escribe mejor series. The program provides patrons with a complimentary first glass of wine, and offers courses and conferences.

“It’s all done like a game and the results are very fun; it’s had a great deal of success,” said Noriega.

The book store’s event calendar for the next few weeks is full of presentations in Spanish, as well as collaborations with other institutions and centers such as Florida International University. One of the next events, a product of that cultural relationship, will take place on Sept. 3, and will feature the launch of the trilogy of Colombian author Jairo Grijalba Ruiz, about Cuban musician Arsenio Rodriguez.

Meanwhile, the Cuentomanía contest will host its two remaining elimination rounds on Sept. 24 and Oct. 8 leading up to the grand finale in December.