The bookstore owner has been an activist since an early age
By Christine Green
There is just something about being surrounded by books. It’s a warm, comfortable feeling that comes from knowing that thousands of stories are just waiting to be discovered.
Henry Padrón-Morales of Rochester knows this feeling well.
For him, it all started in the Bronx when he was just a child at the library. “Walking into that building was like a sensational moment, literally, the smell of the books was a magical feeling for me. And then, the feeling of turning the pages. The smell of a book was one of the fondest memories I had interacting with books, and it lives with me today,” he said.
It’s no surprise then that he is the co-owner of the thriving and vibrant South Wedge bookstore, Hipocampo.
But to understand the importance of the bookstore to Padrón-Morales one must look back at his life as an activist and educator.
“My heart, my passion was in activism,” he said.
Padrón-Morales, 69, was born in Crown Heights Brooklyn to parents who hailed from Puerto Rico. He spent his childhood in the South Bronx before moving with his family to Rochester where he attended East High School.
But his penchant for community activism started even before he reached his teen years in Rochester. It began when Padrón-Morales was 10 and his father received a letter from Puerto Rico.
“The seed was planted when I was 10 years old when my grandmother writes my father a letter,” said Padrón-Morales, “The letter said: ‘…An errant bomb had landed 100 meters from my house.’ Whoa! That was like a no-compute, even at 10 years old. I started asking questions. And eventually I understood that the United States Navy did live target bombing practice on the islands of Culebra. That was activism 101, without even knowing it for me, because from that point on, I had a curiosity. I had a desire to understand why a bomb would land that could kill my mother. You kill the enemy; you kill those who you don’t want to live. I had all these questions going on in my head I peppered my father the rest of my life on the political context of Puerto Rico and the United States. It was my political education before I even knew that.”
From that point on, Padrón-Morales became an activist for the Puerto Rican community locally and in Puerto Rico.
Carmelo Ramos, an integrative medicine specialist at Jewish Senior Life, is a lifelong friend of Padrón-Morales and has known him since his earliest days as an activist and leader in the Rochester Latinx community. “He got a lot of things going and started right from the beginning. He was a pioneer for a lot of this movement in the Hispanic community,” Ramos said.
Padrón-Morales had a formative role in the foundation of Rochester organizations such as the Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center and the Spanish Action Coalition. He was also involved in the first Puerto Rican festival. But he was also instrumental in working with people in Puerto Rico, too, particularly the fishermen of Culebra and Vieques when the US military had divided their fishing areas causing devastating environmental and economic impacts.
“So, my heart, my passion was in activism, particularly activism which has as a central goal the independence of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico, and its island municipalities, is the oldest colony on planet Earth. In the year 2021 there is no colony with a longer history of a colonial status than Puerto Rico. That has been my passion,” he said.
Ramos said that Padrón-Morales’s activism has always been based on a deep and genuine need to help his community and those in need of assistance and representation.
“His activism also helped integrate people when they came here [from Puerto Rico]. Here is a little different from how it is there, but his activism was always there, he was always an advocate, you know. If somebody needed help for any type of thing, Henry was there, organizing things, getting things together and getting people to collaborate with what he was doing. There was so much trust in Henry that he could always help wherever he was needed,” Ramos said.
An activist educator
While Padrón-Morales worked tirelessly as an activist he attended classes at local colleges but did not focus on a career path until a trusted professor at SUNY Brockport, Dr. Robert Ribble, told him that it was time to get his degree. He suggested that since Padrón-Morales had so much experience teaching others—including children—through his community leadership and activism that he could do well as a teacher.
He began a 34-year career as a teacher in the Rochester public schools with 26 of those years being a kindergarten teacher.
He also spent time as an administrator for the Rochester City School District. But when being in the central office didn’t work out, he was more than happy to return to the classroom.
“I took that in such a cool stride, because that’s been the way my life has been from one struggle to another struggle, stride along, move along, don’t get stuck there’s more to do,” he said.
The last 13 years of his career were spent teaching the dual language kindergarten program at school 12.
“Of the participants in the class half were Spanish dominant half were English dominant. And then you put them together. They came from all kinds of strata of society,” he said. “I had kids whose parents were professors at U of R. I had kids whose mother was a mechanic; a father or mother was a nurse. I had kids whose father or mother sold Avon products, I had kids whose families were super tight-knit. I had kids whose families were dysfunctional. They were homeless. The model tries to put all that together to give a growth opportunity for children that are 4.5 to 5.5 years of age in September to grow and see another reality.”
Annette Ramos is a Rochester artist and educator and is the executive administrator of special projects at the Monroe County Parks Department. She is also the executive director of the Rochester Latino Theatre Company. She has known Padrón-Morales for decades.
“Henry was always welcoming artists into his classrooms. I’ve done many programs connected to Henry’s work at school number 12,” she said.
Ramos collaborated with the Memorial Art Gallery on various art programs and appreciated how Padrón-Morales brought his students to experience their events.
“For years we had students from his classroom, and other classrooms at number 12 school, and they were meaningful, impactful experiences where the kids really learned about Latinx art and culture. And then they come and celebrate in a public arena and educate the larger community and context around Latinx art and culture,” she said.
“The seed was planted when I was 10 years old when…an errant bomb had landed 100 meters from my house…That was activism 101, without even knowing it for me.”
Henry Padrón-Morales describes the letter his grandmother received, which sparked his interest in activism for the Puerto-Rican community.
Hipocampo: a commitment to arts and culture
When Padrón-Morales retired from teaching, he didn’t kick up his feet and call it a day. He took all he knew about education and community leadership and decided, with his partner Pamela Bailie, a senior project coordinator at Wilmot Cancer Center, to open a bookstore. It wasn’t a fly-by-night decision, though. They worked hard to create a comprehensive and complete business plan.
“We did our homework,” said Padrón-Morales “We visited other children’s independent bookstores in New York State, Canada, and Europe while we were there. We wanted to get a feel for what this was. We did our research; the metrics, the analytics, the trends. How were bookstores faring at the time? And what projections were there for the future?”
Their hard work paid off and two years ago in April they opened Hipocampo Children’s Books on South Avenue in Rochester. The name is a clever compilation of the words hippopotamus (English) /hipopótamo (Spanish) and hippocampus, the region of the brain that plays an important part in learning and memory. Add the word “camp” in there because of the fun events and programming they offer and you get Hipocampo.
The store is a colorful and inviting space filled with books in a variety of languages for children, teens, and adults. They offer workshops and readings as well.
“You walk in there and it’s about our languages and cultures. We use the book shelves facing the audience that enters. You see the cover of the book, and quite often I’ve had little children tell their mom, ‘Mother, mummy, mummy, that looks like me on that book!’” said Padrón-Morales. “Man, we’re really connecting.”
He went on to discuss the “ripple effect we started in the South Wedge…We’re working with suburban and rural districts and their drive to diversify either their classroom collections, library collections, or grade level collections. I mean, it’s really exciting.”
It wasn’t easy at first, though. Their opening was initially delayed in 2018 because the government shutdown put essential paperwork they needed to open into limbo. They did eventually open but then soon faced what every small business faced in 2020, COVID-19. But like so many others, they expanded their online sales and kept right on going until it was safe to open their doors once again.
“So, our grand opening has been pretty full of having to be very resilient, having to think out of the box. Having to survive a government shutdown right into a pandemic, so it’s been pretty exciting, to say the least,” said Padrón-Morales.
When asked how they managed through all of the ups and downs both Bailie and Padrón-Morales credit the other.
“Pamela’s skill set though, is the one that if it weren’t there, I wouldn’t know what to do, literally,” he said of his partner. “Mine is the programming, the culture, the classes, the publicity. Hers is the nuts and bolts, nitty gritty.”
Bailie added, “This store wouldn’t be what it is without both of our sort of natural ways of being. It’s just so fun to run it with him because first of all, he’s extremely creative.”
She also gave him credit for being someone who is forward thinking and clever. “He’s always thinking of new ways to do things with the store, new programs to run or new events to have,” she said.
She recalled a day when they heard drummers playing music down the street. In no time flat Padrón-Morales was out the door to meet the musicians. He managed to book them for a future event at the store.
“None of that would have happened if it wasn’t for Henry and his personality and the way that he is always looking to meet people and to bring people on board with our store,” said Bailie.
Jose Olivieri-Rivera, founder of Sho-Shin Martial Arts, is another longtime friend of Padrón-Morales and is impressed with how well the store has fared these last couple of years.
“What is best for me is that non-Hispanics are supporting the effort,” he said. “I’ve seen different people from different walks of life, which is good. So, for me it’s a place where people of different sensibilities, if you will, are coming by, Hispanics, Blacks, I’ve seen foreign people here. I think that’s great.”
Bailie and Padrón-Morales are excited for the future of Hipocampo.
“We have a commitment to arts and culture,” said Bailie. “We have a commitment to really highlighting the cultures that are here in Rochester and in Western New York and celebrating people and the work that they do. And we have a commitment to social justice as well. And so, what I see as the pandemic hopefully starts to wane, we’ll be able to bring more people together and be able to sort of fulfill and continue fulfilling those commitments that we have in a way that we’re actually able to do it together in person.”
A spirit of generosity
Hipocampo wouldn’t be what it is today, said Carmelo Ramos, if it wasn’t for Padrón-Morales’s big heart.
“He’s just the most loving, wonderful person and friend. He’s a great guy to be around,” he said. “He was always positive. I never heard a negative word out of Henry, no matter how things happened around us.”
“He has such a strong kindness and a spirit of generosity that I really have not met in very many people,” agreed Bailie. “He really sees people as the human beings that they are, and I’m very lucky to be with him. I’m lucky to be able to see all those sides of him because it’s just a pleasure to see somebody who is just so caring for the people, for everybody in our community.”
When Padrón-Morales isn’t busy working at Hipocampo and being an active community leader, he is jogging, walking, riding his bike, practicing martial arts, making music, or writing poetry.
“I am an avid believer in self-love and self-care,” he said, adding he takes a short nap every day.
Padrón-Morales deserves those restful naps especially considering all he has done to reach this point in his life.
“It’s been a journey. That journey has been from a 10-year-old in the South Bronx reading that letter my grandmother sent my father to read, to now going on the third year being an independent bookstore. And geez, what a journey that’s been!” he said. “And I’ll tell you that there’s much more to go. I’m here and I’m going to continue being who I am, what I am, for the reasons that I am, because it’s been a run and I’ve loved it.”
Visit the shop:
638 South Ave., Rochester, N.Y. 14620
Hipocampo is the official 2021 Greater Rochester Teen Book Festival bookseller.
Just as much a writer as a reader
Padrón-Morales is also an avid writer and musician. He is currently working on a chapbook of his poetry.
“I write in a translanguaging style. I move in and out and through English and Spanish,” he said. “I also use the non-binary x.”
“Short verses full of vexes and curses shedding light to delight the senses en inglés o español no importa todo
“rebota wear your shield put on that armor ponte a prueba de la ignorancia let my words be the w2 that unrusts the old you y te pone flexible de nuevo estabas oxidadx flow brother flow sister flow agarra la hola metete a la yola aquí remamos todx”
“What I love that Henry does, is he really blends art forms. Poetry, spoken word, with music and lyrical verse, and hip hop and rap,” said Annette Ramos. “He really sees the interconnectedness of literature and music. He exemplifies the resounding rhythm of Puerto Rican art and culture in his words and in his music.”
Photo: Henry Padrón-Morales, owner of Hipocampo bookstore on South Wedge: A commitment to arts and culture.