Kensington book store is a cultural center
To reach Barcelona from Connecticut Avenue: Head east on Howard Avenue. Take a right into Kensington Row Bookshop. Go upstairs.
At least, a little piece of the Catalan capital exists there in the form of a library containing more than 2,000 books in the Catalan language. The nook, little-known even by some locals, serves as a gathering place for Metro-area residents from Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain that boasts its own culture and language.
"There are many Americans that come in and they see the library, which they don't expect to see, and they know the Catalan culture — maybe they've been to Barcelona — and they get really excited," said Elisenda Sola-Sole, who owns Kensington Row Bookshop.
Sola-Sole said the Catalan Library and the Fundacio Pauli Bellet — the nonprofit that oversees it — were begun by her father Josep as a means of honoring his mentor Pauli Bellet, a Catalan monk that taught at Catholic University. The library also helps spread Catalan culture and language. Most of the books in the library come from the endowment collections of Bellet and Josep Sola-Sole, who died in 1987 and 2003, respectively.
Cary Kamarat, an American writer from the District who lived in Catalonia for 10 years, said the library is a "compact but rich" resource in his ongoing project translating Catalan poetry.
"It's also just a nice space," Kamarat said. "I have to say living in Catalonia was one of the warmest most wonderful times of my life and it's just a little corner of that warmth."
Kamarat said the library is also a place to keep his Catalan from rusting. Catalan lessons are also taught in the spring and fall at the library to advance the language among the children of expatriates or the curious.
Rodolfo Llobet, whose father was native to Catalonia, has sent his four children, ages 3 to 8, to the lessons and speaks to them exclusively in Catalan.
"It's a very unique language," said Llobet, who lives in Phoenix, Md. "You need that [library] to preserve the culture and the language when you're outside the country."
Montserrat Sola-Sole, Elisenda's mother, said the Catalan government even gives money to the Fundacio Pauli Bellet to help preserve Catalan, a language of roughly 9 million speakers that is related to French, Spanish and Italian.
"The language is what makes us distinct from the Spanish community in Spain," she said, but the foundation also serves as a host for a variety of cultural celebrations throughout the year, including Kensington's Day of the Book, which has its origins in Barcelona.
Llobet said he and his wife decided to have their children learn Catalan because it is rare, and he has learned more about the culture through his children's participation.
"It's more integral for my children than it was even for me growing up," Llobet said.
Montserrat Sola-Sole said a group of Catalans also meets every first Sunday of the month at Jaleo restaurant in Bethesda. She said she has seen the community has fluctuated in size since she moved to the United States in the 1960s, but the foundation has offered an important home for Catalans in the region.
"We feel at home, we feel surrounded with people that use our own language, which would be useless otherwise."