Bookstore owner Lee Dubs: A Cuenca — and Latin American — expat pioneer
By Deke Castleman
Though he says, “Everyone thinks I’m an extrovert, but I’m not really,” Lee Dubs can often be found chatting with customers at Carolina Bookstore, which he co-owns with his wife Carol. He’s not only one of the friendliest and most visible gringos in Cuenca, he’s also lived here since 2003, an eternity in expat years. But because he really isn’t an extrovert, most Carolina customers would be surprised to learn that Lee’s connection to Cuenca dates back to the early 1990s, his career encompassed decades as a professor and public-school teacher of Spanish and Latin Studies and his commitment to Latin America began nearly 50 years ago.
“I was born and raised in the Chicago area,” Lee recalled recently, during a far-ranging discussion held in one of the classrooms upstairs from the bookstore, “and attended a little Lutheran college in down-state Illinois, which is where I originally met Carol. I graduated before she did, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself and this program that President Kennedy had just started, called the Peace Corps, sounded pretty neat.”
In those days, volunteering for the Peace Corps started with three months of highly intensive training; the schedule was ten hours a day, six days a week, half of which involved learning Spanish.
Ironically, one of the things Lee swore he’d never do was learn a foreign language. “I had three years of Latin in high school and hated every minute of it. Those Latin teachers were terrible teachers. Terrible! When I got to college, I begged and pleaded to get out of two-year foreign-language requirement, to no avail. So I tried Spanish and luckily, I had a wonderful teacher my first year. She made me realize I had a knack for languages I’d never have known about. What a difference a teacher makes. Because of her, I majored in languages, Spanish and German, as an undergrad.”
Lee spent two years, 1963-1965, in Peru on the coast north of Lima in the city of Chimbote. He and a few other Peace Corps volunteers lived in a shantytown outside the city, with no water or electricity. Their projects included vaccinating dogs against rabies, getting the school built, and setting up a sewage system.
“We did an educational program on hygiene, specifically, why latrines were a good idea, as opposed to going to the bathroom anywhere. The belief at the time dated as far back as the Incas, that the sun takes care of everything, including purifying sewage in the sand and streets. We showed people why, and then how, to build latrines cheaply. But our greatest accomplishment was getting the school built.”
While he was in Peru, Lee applied to a number of graduate schools. “I took the GRE in Lima. That was an adventure!”
The University of North Carolina offered him a teaching assistantship. That was also ironic, because the second thing Lee swore he’d never do, again due to those dreaded Latin instructors, was teach. However, he now knows that they did him a great service. “They showed me how not to teach, how not to be boring,” he says.
“So I found myself as a grad student at North Carolina in Chapel Hill, but I had to teach Spanish while I was getting my master’s degree,” Lee explains. “I’ll never forget how terrified I was before I taught my first class. I’d never taught; I’d never even planned to teach. I was scared to death. I finally screwed up my nerve and walked into the classroom. To my surprise, the students were excited to see me. They were polite and friendly and enthusiastic. I found out later why. It turned out that all the undergraduates there hated a particular grad student and they didn’t know who their teacher was until he walked into the classroom. And I wasn’t him! That was sure good for me. I had great relations with the students right off the bat. I relaxed and I thought, wow, this isn’t only fun, but I’m getting paid for it. Thus, my career was off to a flying start. I was twenty-four at the time.”
Not only did Lee have a knack for languages, he also had a flair for teaching. “I loved teaching, influencing students, making a mark on their young lives.” Dr. Dubs went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. and taught college, as a full tenured university professor, for more than thirty years.
He was considering retirement when some friends suggested he teach in the public schools. “My initial reaction was, are you out of your minds? You have to be nuts to do that kind of teaching.” But when the friends bet him that he couldn’t last a year in middle school, he accepted the challenge. “If I liked teaching college, I loved teaching the thirteen- to fifteen-year-olds,” Lee says, with a wistful expression. “I thought it was the most phenomenal thing I’d ever done. It was like discovering the Peace Corps all over again. I had this new sense of mission. I mean, it’s such a tough age. These kids are constantly wrestling with themselves and one another, with hormones, with life, with independence, while being dependent at the same time, and I recognized all of that. The kids latched onto me, like I was a favorite grandfather. They enjoyed coming to my classes and I saw that I could have a positive influence on a lot of kids, particularly the difficult ones.”
At the end of that first year, Lee collected on the bet: one dollar. Eventually, he switched to high school; he wound up teaching public school for eight years before retiring. “I look back at my career,” Lee recalls, “and say that it was a great ride. I was fortunate to love what I did.”
He still does.
He discovered Cuenca while he was the chairman of the language department at the highly liberal St. Andrews Presbyterian College and got involved in setting up a language exchange program with the University of Cuenca in the early 1990s.
“The first group of students from St. Andrew’s came down here in the spring of 1992 and the program still exists to this day.” That was Lee’s first taste of Cuenca. “I knew I’d retire in Latin America. I’d traveled all over Mexico, Costa Rica, a few other places, with student groups. I had a little town picked out in eastern Mexico. But as soon as I found Cuenca, my allegiance shifted.” Eleven years later, in 2003, Lee and Carol and moved here.
Getting back to Carol, Lee explains, “When I went into the Peace Corps, Carol and I went our separate ways. She married once and I married twice. We didn’t see each other for some thirty years. We reconnected in 1998 and got married in 2001. I brought Carol down here and introduced her to the city and to all the friends I’d made through the program. She loved it and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ At that time, there were perhaps ten North Americans, fifteen at most, living in Cuenca.”
The bookstore wasn’t part of the plan. Lee and Carol had given absolutely no thought to starting a business at all. But one day, they were chatting with their friend Elena Moreño, a single mother of two who owned a store that sells school supplies. She happened to mention that numerous tourists came into her store, looking for books in English. Elena and the Dubses kept talking about it, until Elena asked them if they wanted to share the store, half for her supplies and half for English books.
“So that’s how it started,” Lee says. “That and Carol confessing to me that she always had a dream of a little bookstore, with the requisite cat lazing in a corner.”
ABC Bookstore opened in January 2006 on Padre Aguirre. After a fire at that location, the store moved to its present location on Hermano Miguel near the corner of Calle Larga and changed its name to Carolina books, after the Dubses home state of North Carolina.
Lee and Carol celebrate their 10th anniversary on November 17, and Lee concludes with, “The main thing is that Carol and I love it here. I could never go back to the states. We’ll live here till the end.”