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The Hartford Courant

Family Fulfills Bookstore Dream Spanish-Language Titles And Coffee Create Cultural Center

GOSIA WOZNIACKA; Courant Staff Writer

19 July 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

It took five years of planning and a lot of determination for three sisters and their brother to realize a dream born of necessity.

Back in 1999, when Carmen Cotto was studying to become a teacher at Springfield College, she was repeatedly disappointed when she tried to find books she needed for her lesson plans -- books by Puerto Rican and other Latin American authors.

``I was getting very frustrated, because I couldn't find anything for me or for the kids'' at local bookstores, she said. ``If I ordered a book, I would have to wait for a long time until it arrived.''

When she asked teachers and friends for help, they advised her to buy directly in the author's country of birth or travel to New York City, where such books were available. Cotto was getting discouraged. But then she had an idea.

A month ago, Cotto and her three siblings -- Luis Edgardo, Leticia and Cindy -- opened La Paloma Sabanera, a coffeehouse and bookstore at 405 Capitol Ave. with a large and varied collection of Latin American literature. The store is also a showcase for local Latino artists and a fledgling cultural space.

La Paloma, named after an endangered Puerto Rican pigeon, is cozy and decorated with paintings, masks and woodcuts -- all made by Hartford artists. Small wooden tables and wicker chairs flank the large bookcases that boast 1,000 titles -- and some 2,000 volumes -- representing Latin American countries and Spain. Most of the books are in Spanish, though there are English and bilingual titles.

For the past four weeks, the coffeehouse has been extremely popular with city Latinos, neighbors, and people who work in nearby businesses. Five years ago, when Carmen prepared a grant proposal as part of her final university project, no one believed La Paloma would become a reality.

The Cottos were not discouraged by closed doors. Over the years, the four siblings approached a variety of organizations for funding, only to be rejected each time.

But when Leticia Cotto-Hilliman, the middle sister, became a stay-at-home mother, she started researching grants full-time. The Cottos eventually revamped their business plan to include coffee in addition to books, and applied for a Community Economic Development Fund grant, a small-business loan that also offers free business counseling.

They did not get the loan at first try. To improve their odds, Leticia took a business management course and small-business training. The Cottos reapplied and received the loan. But the CEDF Foundation, which oversees the loans, did not want to fund the space where La Paloma is located.

``We were dedicated to opening the coffeehouse in the Park Street corridor,'' said Luis Edgardo Cotto. ``It's who we want to serve. We always envisioned a social component to this place. So once again we put the project on the back burner.''

Eventually, after someone tried and failed to open a comedy club at 405 Capitol Ave., CEDF Foundation finally agreed to fund the coffeehouse.

The entire family went to work.

Luis Edgardo quit his job and flew back to Hartford from Washington D.C. The siblings' father, Angel Luis Cotto, who came to Hartford in 1964 as a tobacco worker, took on the landscaping and planted flowers on the patch of earth outside the coffeehouse, once filled with trash and broken glass. And family and friends in Puerto Rico started sending decorations and ideas for books. One cousin even sent Carmen an e-mail saying he would fly to Hartford to volunteer behind the counter.

``This is a great accomplishment for our family,'' said Carmen Cotto on a recent morning. ``Everyone thinks La Paloma is a great idea and wants to support it. We took a leap of faith toward a small business, and it's a dream come true.''

The Cottos are planning to turn the coffeehouse into a Latino cultural space by hosting a children's story-time, poetry readings, concerts, movies and even salsa lessons. At the end of July, the coffeehouse will kick off its book club with a discussion of G.G. Marquez's ``One Hundred Years of Solitude.''

``This place fills a hole in Hartford,'' said Fernando Betancourt, executive director of the State of Connecticut Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. ``It's more than a traditional coffeehouse, where you can have a pastry for breakfast. It's becoming a cultural space. This place has a lot of potential -- because there are no other alternatives in Hartford.''

La Paloma Sabanera is open Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more information, call 860-548-1670, or visit

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