Sunday, November 6, 2011

Books, Schmooks

Libros Schimbros at the UCLA Hammer Museum
In 2010, David Kipen, native Angeleno and former director of the National Endowment for the Arts' Reading Initiatives opened a used bookstore and lending library in Boyle Heights, east of downtown in Los Angeles. He called the store Libros Schmibros - an inside joke about the early 20th century Yiddish heritage of Boyle Heights. In the store, Kipen sells used books and allows folks in the community to borrow books if they can't afford to buy. He encourages donations and welcomes volunteers to help shelve, stock and staff the store.

Many of his customers are neighborhood students who commute to universities across town, like UCLA - so it was a no-brainer for the UCLA Hammer Museum's Public Engagement program to bring an outpost of Libros Schmibros to Westwood for a residency.  Set up in the museum's lobby gallery, the extra space allows even more of the collection to be made available to the public, and to host a series of book discussions and readings by authors.

Some of the stock of used books in Kipen's collection came to him as independent bookstores in Los Angeles County closed and sold their stock - victims to competition from big chain stores, internet sales, and rising retail rents.

The run of the residency, originally scheduled to end on October 9, was extended until November 5th. We popped in to visit.

When you enter Libros Schmibros at the Hammer, you are welcomed with colorful garlands of papel picados, the Mexican cut-paper folk art used to celebrate holidays like Dias de los Muertos. There are also paper Chinese and Japanese lanterns that glow. The space is lined with bookcases and fitted out with a comfortable curved green couch that invites the visitor to get comfortable and read. Along the back wall of the space, above the cases, is a 23 foot long mural drawn by artist J. Michael Walker.

Titled "City in Mind: A Lyrical Map of the Concept of Los Angeles," it's a literary map of  Los Angeles. From the coastline where Joan Didion stands on the beach to Boyle Heights, where Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston writes about internment in Manzanar, throughout the landscape of greater Los Angeles, writers are depicted where they lived and wrote, and Walker shares quotes of their works. Early Iconic Los Angeles authors like Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler and John Fante are all here. So are current authors like Pulitzer Price winning food critic Jonathan Gold and wordsmith musicians like Randy Newman and the late Tupac Shakur. The map is multi-layered - it evokes simultaneously the earliest Tongva people, the Spanish missions, the Depression, the Summer of Love.

Detail - "Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I love you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town" - John Fante
 When we visited, both David Kipen and Michael Walker were there, and we spoke with them. Michael kindly allowed me to take photos of his map, and signed a copy of his book "All the Saint of the City of the Angels." David, while sharing my disappointment that so many independent bookstores are closing, told us of new stores bucking the trend. In Malibu, Diesel reopens. In Redondo Beach, Mysterious Galaxy Books offers some consolation to those who mourn the loss of Mystery Bookstore in Westwood. Though e-books and Amazon are threatening mainstream bookstores, he said the salvation of independent bookstores lies in neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, where many residents lack internet access.

There are efforts to find a permanent home for the literary map, whether at a museum, library, or university. The original Libros Schmibros is planning a move from its first store to another in Mariachi Plaza. The little room in the Hammer Museum was filled with well-wishers and an excited anticipation to turn the page on the next chapter.


ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

Books are for pointy-haids!

P.S. I hadn't heard of the lyrical map before. I hope it finds a good home...

Gary's third pottery blog said...

I love the drawing! Even in Ithaca we have had a lot of bookstores close, the last independent closed, but reopened as a community owned coop, sheesh!

Anonymous said...

I'll have to look again in our local funky neighborhood (home of the milk bottle) to see if there is a book store there. I think there might be...