Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña sits in a parked car, window down, smiling, hoisting books and a giant bottle of hand sanitizer. This image recently appeared on social media posts by Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, which Magaña has run for nearly five years. At her Spanish-and-English shop, you can find the work of contemporary Mexican novelists, indigenous poets, baby book authors who pen books like one on frybread, and other forward-thinking writers. These days, Magaña drives ordered books to customers, disinfectant in tow.
In recent weeks, the coronavirus has closed businesses across Arizona. Magaña’s McDowell Road storefront remains open — for in-person shopping and online sales.
These days, Magaña offers free shipping. If you live close, your order might reach you by her own hand. “As a business I know that at the end of the day, if people don’t buy books from me, I don’t survive as a bookstore,” she says.
Adjusting to the virus, Magaña has moved literary events to the web. The queer poetry salon now convenes in cyberspace. So does a book club focusing on work by women of color. (Next up: Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Marie Brown, to be examined over Zoom in early April.)
Magaña has also devised a way to bring the mien of Palabras home. She has shared bookshop playlists on Spotify, for listening as you browse books by category or curated list on her website, or as you read on your couch. “We do have customers who like to stay a while to just hang out and read,” she says. “This gives them some of that store ambiance.”
Survival in the time of coronavirus requires adaptation. For many, the new urgency to adapt extends beyond business ownership. Seeking to help others, Magaña has — while delivering books, modifying operations, and running her shop — turned Palabras into Central Phoenix’s pickup point for Mutual Aid.
Mutual Aid is a volunteer group that collects donated supplies, then gives them to disadvantaged groups. (You can volunteer or request assistance.) “I’m helping in a small capacity by using my social platform to connect people,” she says. “And by using the bookstore as a main drop location where people can meet to exchange goods.”
She keeps an ever-changing list of donated supplies. She and other volunteers maintain another list, one compiling resources people need in the coronavirus age.
“I really think that small businesses and community organizations are the glue that keeps us together,” Magaña says. “And we need to do what we can to be there for each other, not as a form of charity, but instead as a form of solidarity.”
She urges people to buy local, to help neighbors. “In whatever capacity,” she says, “we need to be there for one another, now more than ever.”
And while juggling charity, organizing and community ideals, she’s delivering physical books, one of the great antidotes to hard times. Though Magaña’s vision extends beyond Palabras, she, like every other small business owner, has to push forward in what ways she can. “I am just trying so very hard to keep my little business afloat,” she says.
Palabras Bilingual Bookstore
1738 E. McDowell Rd., Phoenix