Until We Grow Into The Mountain: An Interview with Duende District’s Angela Maria Spring
I first met Angela Maria Spring just over a year ago, when I was hosting the Artomatic literary open mic and wandered into her very first pop-up. We became fast friends and watching Duende District explode from a Kickstarter campaign to a DC-brand with multiple locations has been magical.
What Duende is doing is revolutionary in a lot of ways. It’s challenging the bookselling industry and the publishing world. Its nimble, pop-up business model is a savvy way of making books available to communities previously dismissed as “book deserts.” In centering the work of writers of color, Duende is also proving to publishers that there is real, tangible demand for these previously-marginalized voices.
Spring is also a talented poet and holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. You can read out some of her recent work in Origins. The care with which Spring curates the book selection at Duende reflects her poetic sensibility and her seasonal pick lists often anticipate which books will make the biggest impact in the months that follow.
Spring was kind enough to make time to chat with me this week, about bookselling, writing, and the future of publishing in DC.
What’s your background? What drew you to bookselling, and more specifically, to the pop-up model?
I grew up obsessed with books. I remember the exact moment everything clicked and I could read books by myself. I say it was like the world cracked open. I was always a very stubborn, independent child and when I could finally read and write by myself at six years old, it was like I could be free forever. I read any and everything and started writing poetry like crazy. And the one bright spot in a very dark childhood was my weekly trip to the bookstore.
So bookstores have always been a safe space for me in one way and I got my first job as a college undergraduate at the Waldenbooks at the mall in Albuquerque. Ever since then, I was hooked. Nothing has brought me more joy than putting a book in a stranger’s hands and watching them light up as I tell them how much I think they will love it.
That’s power, mi gente. The power to inspire, comfort, bring joy, to make people think, to help teach them empathy. That’s what booksellers do and what people trust us to do. I have been a bookseller for 17 years and that feeling has only grown, especially since starting Duende District. With this mission-based bookstore by and for people of color, every book I carry, every customer I meet, it’s even more powerful.
I was drawn to the pop-up model because it enables me to reach many communities of color throughout the DMV and, looking to the future, throughout other parts of the country and territories. I am the daughter of a Central-American immigrant, the granddaughter of a Puerto Rican, and I grew up in a state that lives on the literal border between the U.S. and Mexico, so existing sin fronteras as a bookstore appeals to who I am fundamentally. I want to bring this experience to as many communities of color, especially immigrant, as I can. To give us the power of a high-level, but still accessible, literary culture that until now has existed as the near-sole property of white people. To bring the hope and freedom I was able to experience throughout my childhood and adolescence, especially at this time in our country, is my dream.
But it’s even better, because this literary experience and the books are truly reflective and celebratory of who we as people of color. A place we are never otherized or overlooked or are considered a footnote.
What inspired the name Duende District?
I have been obsessed with Federico García Lorca’s theory of the duende since my MFA program at Sarah Lawrence. I wanted a Spanish word in my store title to reflect my heritage and I kept coming back to duende, a core element fundamental to my own poetry, and to how I read books and poetry. It all made sense and then my husband insisted District be in the title and it’s alliterative, so that was that.
We met at last year’s Artomatic in Crystal City, where you set up the first Duende pop-up. Happy one-year anniversary! What has changed, about your perspective— and about Duende—in the past year?
Gracias! The core of Duende District has remained absolutely in place – we are a high-quality, warm, welcoming bookstore by and for people of color, where all are welcome.
However, what has changed is my entire idea of what a bookstore should be, which was part of my goal (to redefine the traditional structure of the bookstore model), so it’s going well beyond my expectations. Duende District currently exists in two models: a mission-based vendor boutique bookstore and a collaborative partnership pop-up bookstore. The vendor boutique model has allowed me to set up two long-term, or permanent, pop-ups within MahoganyBooks in Anacostia and Toli Moli in Union Market, with a third in development right now.
The collaborative pop-up is the bigger bookstore that travels to different locations. I’ve extended the pop-up durations from two weeks to two months, and will hopefully be in one place from September-December at the end of the year.
As for my perspective, what has changed is that my scope has continually grown. I could decide to dig in roots and do a brick-and-mortar at some point, but right now I am having way too much fun partnering with amazing fellow PoC entrepreneurs and organizations to create these gorgeous, awesome literary spaces, unique to each partnership but with the Duende District core always present.
It’s incredible how much you’ve accomplished in the past year. What was the lowest point in your journey? What was the highest? Was there a specific moment in which you realized you were on the right track?
The entire concept of Duende District was born from my lowest point, when I realized how I had been living my life striving for a whiteness I’d been colonized to believe I should, but in actuality can never achieve. The shock of it—of having my “whiteness” stripped from me by people I had worked for and known nearly seven years, because I finally called them out on their racial prejudice one single time—it felt like my entire life was a construct, of the flimsiest material masquerading as brick. One day I blew on it too hard and it all crumbled to dust.
I was so ashamed of myself for allowing myself to wander so far from who I am, a woman of color and first-gen Latina, to allow myself for even a short time to believe the lies of white liberals that they do not hold up institutional racism everywhere, even bookstores. Ashamed of myself that the privilege I hold as a light-skinned Latina allowed me to fall into that deception, to coast through my career thinking there wasn’t a place where I would simply stop ascending simply because all our systems are built to keep people of color in our place.
The moment the scales truly fall from your eyes, your lowest point, your darkest hour, that’s your moment of truth. You find yourself on your knees, terrified, finally seeing all your faults, all the deceptions you allowed yourself to take part in. But if you get back up, turn on the lights decide to fight, to dismantle everything your colonizers planted in you, find a way to rip every piece of systemic brainwashing from you, root by root, then it’s worth it. We say “decolonize your mind” at Duende District because it is a continual process of growing, of learning and unlearning. And if one of us has privilege, it is our duty to uplift others in our community who do not, to fight to create the spaces and experiences that white people will not—and don’t know how— to give us.
Everyone I talked to about the concept thought it was great, so I figured I was on the right track. Timing definitely helps – the election of Trump was a shockwave for many, especially white liberals, but we’re only now beginning to grasp what the repercussions are and will continue to be.
I don’t really have a specific moment I can point to, however. I just refuse to accept things as they are. I won’t perpetuate a lie, I will no longer be complicit, I will take everything I’ve learned and give it back to others. I love celebrating writers, love people, love our stories, both written and spoken. I love conversations. I love our different cultures, I love seeing children open a book and see themselves looking back at them. I want us truly represented in every facet of life and the world of words, written and spoken, is my corner and I will never stop working toward making it truly accessible to all people of color in this country.
How do you see the book and books sales industry evolving in the coming years?
The issue is I see it evolving far too slowly. The biggest publishers are eating all the small presses and we’re going to end up with three behemoth companies that all think and do the same tired thing and don’t have a diverse group of staff in decision-making positions (editors, acquisitions, etc.).
Part of Duende District’s mission is to push back on the entire book industry, to narrow the focus onto a huge overlooked, untapped market of readers/consumers, people of color. We want well-written, well-rounded stories that aren’t solely about our unrelenting oppression or historical figures and events. It’s one more way to otherize us – the white lens focusing on the only types of stories they think people of color can tell.
We won’t get true representation and save publishing (literally, I think achieving true representation in the industry will monetarily save publishing) until we prove the money is out there and the only way to get to it is through us on OUR terms.
And it will be groundbreaking because it will affect every PoC reader and writer everywhere. It will change academia. It will change MFA programs. It will change everything. Duende District is the pebble that will draw in more pebbles until we grow into the mountain.
Every book someone purchases from Duende District has a direct impact on how we will revolutionize the book industry. Because the more weight my voice and store carry, the more people of color will open up bookstores like mine, the more we will serve our communities, the more we will open up access, and the more power we will acquire, the more seats at the table we will have. The gatekeepers will change. That’s the ballgame.
Where do you hope to take Duende in the next five years?
Everywhere. I want Duende District to expand from just to East Coast to the West Coast and tons of places between. In what form will always change, which is the nature of my business model, but while I expand, I plan on taking as many PoC retail and artistic business ventures upward into success with me as I possibly can. And the possibility to me is infinite.
How does the concept of Duende tie together your two identities: poet and bookseller?
The most cohesive way it ties together is through my role as book buyer/curator and community book event planner. I tend to trend toward reading and supporting younger or emerging voices of color in poetry and my book selection and events schedule is very reflective of that. Duende District is a home that welcomes poets of color from both academia and the stage. My own background as a slam poet and organizer in Albuquerque, the presentations I’ve done in middle and high school students throughout New Mexico, informs the partnerships I cultivate with the store and the communities I want to reach.
What can aspiring writers and poets learn from booksellers?
We are both integral to the life cycle of a book. We are symbiotic. One cannot exist without the other. Writers, if you develop a relationship with a bookstore and support each other with all your hearts, it will be a gift that keeps on giving. Your bookstore will be your second home and the more success you have, the more you’ll be grounded and the more you can help pass your success on to the booksellers who supported you from the beginning.
Which books inspire you to keep doing this work? Are there lesser known authors whose work you particularly enjoy introducing new readers to? What are you reading right now that makes you excited about the future of WOC in literature?
I love discovering new authors. I love debut novels and seeing their promise only just begin. And now that I own a bookstore that only carries books by authors of color, it makes it all that more satisfying to read phenomenal work by emerging voices because they are the future of our industry.
I’ve surprised a few authors in the last year with the confidence I have in their books making it big but I’ve been doing this for 17 years, in D.C. and New York City, I am attuned to the signs of success and the time is finally ripening for writers of color.
I am reading so many fierce books by women of color in particular right now that make me want to howl with joy. I’m going to name some books you can currently find on sale at Duende District to make it fair: Naima Coster’s Halsey Street, Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home, Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries, Melissa Lozada-Oliva’s Peluda, Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X.
How do you view DC? Do you think its literary influence is growing?
D.C. is a complex city within a city. There is the political part, with people coming from around the country to save the world. They don’t interest me that much. I spent too many years that I lived here only interacting with that world and now I’ve found the richly colorful, vibrantly creative, well-lived-in city that lives beneath the cold glitter of the other. This is the D.C. that does not allow outsiders to easily access unless you’re ready to get down for real. Once you are, it unfurls so wide you see its true beating heart, bloody and brilliant.
Too many people try to access the first city and there does exist a very real cache of literary influence there but it’s not very welcoming to writers of color unless you’re willing to be bleached out. But the other city, the real one, is like a hidden treasure-trove of artistic and written talent. The success of Elizabeth Acevedo is definitely a sign to come of growing influence. She’s one of ours, not theirs, and The Poet X came out and suddenly everyone sees her (which is totally how it should be), so I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.
What do you make of the political climate? What role can literature play in the current political climate?
We’re in the grip of an aspiring authoritarian regime ethnically cleansing immigrants of color, especially within the Latinx and Muslim communities, and strengthening the systemic racist institutions this country was built on, in addition to waging war against the poorest people to deprive of them of even more and abandoning entire U.S. territories to basically die after two devastating hurricanes.
As a Boricua and first-gen Panamanian-American, it’s my patriotic duty to build Duende District in our nation’s capital. Every book by a person of color I sell, every event I host celebrating writers of color, every person of color who walks into my store and sees that it is their store, is my activism. Why do you think Trump and his corrupt administration are hell-bent on sucking all the funding from libraries, the NEA, all federal arts and literature programs? They don’t want us any of us to have this and they definitely do not want people of color to have it.
They want our subjugation, they want our imaginations, they want us eliminated in every way conceivable. So I’ll keep celebrating our voices, our talent, our books, our literary culture, keep finding way to build bridges and have conversations, and do it right in front of these people who are so blind they will never even see the revolution happening on their own doorstep.
The simple act of buying a book can change our country. This is what bookselling should and can be. We will make it happen together.
Angela Maria Spring is a first-generation Latinx of Panamanian and Puerto Rican descent. Originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico, she currently lives in Washington, D.C., where she owns Duende District, a bookstore by and for people of color, where all are welcome. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and her work has appeared in various publications, including The American Poetry Journal (forthcoming), Origins Journal, District Lines, Naugatuck River Review and Tar River Poetry. You can find her online at @burquenaboricua on Twitter & @amw505 on Instagram.