It all starts with Estella.
Estella was less than a year old when, in May 2018, her parents founded and opened Estelita’s Library — a “justice focused community library & bookstore,” as the tagline describes it — in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
“We did this because our baby needs to know that she is part of the community and the community is part of her,” said Edwin Lindo, Estella’s father, and the curator and co-founder of Estelita’s Library. “The community will always look after her, even when she’s not here, because she has her library. She gets to build it with her cohort, folks her age, as she grows older —”
“And for my mom!” interjects Estella, now 3, during a phone interview with Lindo.
Estelita’s Library is not your traditional bookstore or library.
If you walked into Estelita’s before the pandemic temporarily closed the space, you’d see books everywhere — in stacks on the floor, on chairs, tucked away in little nooks — and in no particular order. There are no card catalogs here. The book you’re looking for will find you.
You might see community members quietly reading and students hard at work on their dissertations or studying for finals. But you might also see kids and adults facing off in chess matches, talking politics, listening to a lecture or preparing for a group bike ride.
You might smell sangria in the air and hear feet shuffling to salsa music, or you might be offered up a po’boy as folks vibe to the music stylings of local DJ Topspin. There will be no shushing here.
Usually, you’ll also see little Estella greeting you at the door or dancing along with the patrons. But most important, you’ll see community coming together and sharing ideas, food, art, laughs or even just some gossip.
Modeled after Lindo and his wife Dr. Estell Williams’ own California upbringing in communities in Oakland and the Mission District neighborhood of San Francisco, everything about Estelita’s Library — from the books on the shelves, to the design of the space itself, to the food on the plates — is built to bring people together and share knowledge.
So when the pandemic hit, the library, just two years young and so heavily centered on community, was in just as uncertain a position as other businesses. In the end, that community-centric model is precisely what has helped Estelita’s Library endure through the multiple crises we’ve all been through this past year.
As Lindo and Williams prepare to open a new location for Estelita’s in the Central District, they hope the values that guide the library’s curation will be what helps it endure.
Space to think with freedom
When Lindo decided he wanted to open a library in his community, people were surprised. After all, the Beacon Hill branch of the Seattle Public Library was just down the block.
But Lindo had a different kind of library in mind.
“When I go in [SPL], it’s not the library that I want to be in,” said Lindo. “It’s not that I don’t like it, but you have to be quiet. I see older people telling children to be quiet and to shush.”
“Our goal is to be a complement and ancillary to [the Seattle Public Library],” said Lindo, who says SPL and Estelita’s often collaborate on events now.
Lindo wanted to create a library that felt like the spaces where he’d grown up in the Mission District, places that, at their core, are community gathering spaces.
He recalls spots like Bolerium Books and Radio Habana Social Club in the Mission, where Lindo spent hours as a kid reading in the corner while his father talked, argued, drank and gossiped with other community members.
“My dad is from Nicaragua. In Nicaragua and in many countries, there’s always a centerpiece to the community, and the centerpiece is where people come and hear about what we call ‘chisme,’ the gossip,” said Lindo. “You hear about the politics, the gossip, but you also have these community philosophers and they have wisdom. Ten years later you realize they were telling you the secrets.”
Already, Lindo says, Estelita’s is achieving some of its goals.
Lindo recalls a young person who came into the library with his parents in the library’s early days and sat down in the reading corner with a book he found on the shelf.
Shortly afterward, the kid asked Lindo for a pen and paper so he could take notes. He was reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and was only on the first page, where Zinn dispels problematic myths about Christopher Columbus. The young man said he’d never heard anything like that before and wanted to take notes to bring back to school and tell his peers.
“And I said, ‘We did it. We could actually close the doors right now,’” said Lindo. “It’s only for that reason that we’re here — consciousness was just raised.”
“What Estelita’s tries to do is give us space to think critically and to think with freedom,” said Lindo. “So you start thinking about worlds that seem impossible.”
An important component of creating that sense of intellectual freedom and knowledge-sharing is the design of the space itself.
After three years of operating out of a small space on 16th Avenue South, right across the street from El Centro de la Raza, where little Estella attends day care, Estelita’s Library will move into a new building created specifically for them in February.
As part of a pilot project aiming to make use of unused pieces of city property leftover from other projects, the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture partnered with Sawhorse Revolution — a community-centered, equity-centered nonprofit carpentry group for youth — and invited community organizations to submit proposals for a $10,000 grant.
The students at Sawhorse, drawn to the values of Estelita’s and intrigued by the library’s collection of Black Panther newspapers (one of the largest in the country, thanks to Lindo’s exhaustive efforts), selected Estelita’s as the first-ever recipient of the Tiny Cultural Space design and construction project and grant.
Aiming for a space that allows for flexibility, inspires creativity and is welcoming and accessible, the Sawhorse team designed and built a venue that employed lots of color and unique shapes; includes large double doors that open onto a 400-square-foot deck to expand the space as needed; and can be easily unbolted from its foundation and moved. The building’s windows are low and there are rolling benches to make the space kid-friendly and more accessible to wheelchair users.
Sawhorse Executive Director Sarah Smith says the project has helped students examine their own communities and learn about pressing social issues through architecture and design.
The new location was supposed to be open in June 2020, but due to the pandemic, Sawhorse had to work in smaller, socially distanced teams to finish the project.
Now, the books are all packed up and Estelita’s Library will be moving into the new space in early February.
But as the pandemic continues, disproportionately affecting the very communities that Estelita’s Library engages, the library, like other organizations, has had to adapt. Like with everything, it has done so by listening to the community itself.
“The community knows what it needs”
When the pandemic hit and the stay-home order kept people from gathering, Estelita’s could no longer hold the salsa nights, chess club meetings or poetry slams that used to pack the library full of joyful noise.
While other businesses and organizations limited by the pandemic’s social distancing and venue closure rules wondered how they could continue operating, Estelita’s left it to the community to decide how they should best adapt to serve constituents.
“We don’t need to dictate the community in any fashion. The community knows what it needs,” said Lindo. “They said, ‘We need food.’ So … Estelita’s became a food bank every Wednesday in October. The food is always gone because folk needed it.”
Northstar Cycling Club — a Black, brown and Indigenous people cycling and racing club — began using Estelita’s as a hub to launch their rides.
Bound together by shared values, the Estelita’s community also found themselves coming together and supporting each other as they met and marched together during last summer’s protests against police brutality.
When they’re not organizing, celebrating and building with the community through the library, Lindo and Williams are still engaged in justice- and community-centric work.
As a critical race theory scholar and acting assistant professor of medical student education at the University of Washington School of Medicine, Lindo teaches future doctors about the intersections of racism and medicine. Williams is an assistant professor of surgery, and the executive director of the Doctor for a Day outreach program at UW’s School of Medicine.
In June, Williams organized the health care workers march against racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd, and was pleased to see members of the Estelita’s community there.
Estelita’s began selling books online through Bookshop.org and, in the first seven weeks of going online, they sold 10,000 books, according to Lindo.
In reaction to the George Floyd protests, many Estelita’s patrons began buying up their books on social and racial justice and history to educate themselves about the issues driving the protests, and some donated the books back to Estelita’s.
Estelita’s also became a bookseller for Town Hall Seattle and Seattle Arts & Lectures, and the founders are putting the finishing touches on a truck for a mobile Estelita’s Library to bring books to events.
Now, as the country faces the consequences of a racist insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and also welcomes the first woman of color vice president to the White House, Estelita’s values and future are even more clearly entwined with the future of its namesake.
It all comes back to Estella.
“We don’t shield [Estella] from anything,” said Williams. “The more we empower her with knowledge of community and social justice and the realities of racism, the more her brain will start working at a younger age in understanding these contexts and start thinking of a different way, of how things can change.”