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The East L.A. Bookstore That Acts Like a Library Annex

A lending library and used bookstore in L.A.'s Boyle Heights is serving a community when the local library can't.

The bookstore Libros Schmibros is located on a block of buildings in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights that's far better known for its greasy burritos than it is for literary culture. But David Kipen's tiny bookshop with the funny name is quite obviously not a pretentious place for out-of-work writers to sneer at the covers of novels. Instead, he's cultivating a new kind of enthusiasm for reading with personal recommendations and a sense of community that cash-strapped local libraries can't always provide.

Kipen, a self-professed "white guy with Yale Spanish," has created the closest thing to a public square for the local, mostly Latino community—a place where people feel just as comfortable camping out for the free wi-fi as they do stopping in just to use the restroom (as a patron does during our conversation). It's all the same to him, says Kipen, as long as they're reading. "Job number one is to get books into people's homes."

As a book critic and author, Kipen had grown up in L.A. but went to D.C. to launch The Big Read, a National Endowment for the Arts program that challenged residents of cities across the country to read books together. When he came back to L.A., he was exploring new places to live when he stumbled into Boyle Heights, one of L.A.'s oldest and most diverse neighborhoods. "I felt right at home, in a neighborhood that had not even been on my radar."

He moved in, but without a key part of his existence: The approximately 6,000 books he had been keeping in storage. When he toured the empty storefront adjacent to his apartment, he realized that the books could be a kind of welcome gift for his new neighbors. "I thought, 'rather than pay the storage fees why not share them with the neighborhood?'" Kipen opened the store rather symbolically on July 19, the day that the local branch of the Los Angeles Public Library down the street announced it would be closed on Mondays.

If you're from the neighborhood, you can borrow up to five books for a few weeks for $1.00 apiece, a figure which Kipen admits is more of a suggested donation. But that's when something happens, he says. He'll lend the book to an adult, and sometimes they'll come back with their children; a teenager will return with his parents. The little wooden table at the center of the space can be populated by four different generations speaking four different languages, perusing everything from fine art coffee table books to Agatha Christie murders translated into Spanish.

The mismatched, often rickety shelves reveal a collection that's extremely comprehensive for its size. The holdings run deep in California and Los Angeles books, and he's got the classics as well as works of contemporary fiction. The entire operation is volunteer-run, and Kipen is looking for more literary-minded team members who can do everything from reshelve books to plan events and readings that draw new faces into the space. Currently, he's only open four days a week.

As we're talking, an older woman in a red cardigan wanders into the store, looking a little lost. "Español?" she asks. Kipen guides her to a short stack at the center of the store, and by way of demonstration, professes his only shortcoming: The lack of Spanish-language books. With so few bookstores anywhere in L.A. that serve the Spanish-speaking population, he hopes to become the city's first fully bilingual bookstore. What he needs are the titles themselves that can broaden his offerings. Lately his multicultural collection has benefitted, indirectly, from the collapse of chain bookstores: The Pasadena branch of Borders passed along shelves of its Spanish-language books when they closed.

The woman chooses five books and makes her way to the front of the store where Kipen takes down her information and returns to our chat, smiling. That's a perfect example of why the Libros Schmibros lending library model works so well in fulfilling his primary goal, he says: Keeping most books rental-only helps him make sure each book can serve the most people possible. But that's not the only upside to lending, says Kipen, with a grin. "The other great thing, of course, is that you get to see people again in three weeks."

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