Rueben Martinez's Librería Martinez Close to Closing Para Siempre

Rueben Martinez hopes he can get by with a little help from the book-loving public
Tenaya Hills/OC Weekly File Photo

Book End
Librería Martinez close to closing para siempre

If you're an Orange County resident, there's no need to explain Librería Martinez—but here's a quick recap: The 13-year-old Santa Ana bookstore is a county—no, national—landmark, the largest Latino-themed bookstore in the United States, owned by barber-turned-MacArthur Fellowship (the so-called "genius grant") winner Rueben Martinez. Through his infectious enthusiasm for the written and spoken word, Martinez turned a vacant storefront on Main Street into one of the primary founts of Latino literature in the Americas, a place that has hosted every major American-born Latino author and most every Latin American titan of letters save Gabriel García Márquez. The shelves overflow with Spanish-language translations of the Western canon, Chicano-studies texts, contemporary authors and gorgeous photo books.

And all of this might be gone by year's end.

Librería Martinez is in serious financial straits—floundering sales, missed rent checks, and the Sisyphean task of battling the big book chains and online retailing. Couple that with a freefalling economy, recent ICE raids in Santa Ana that have put a chill on Latino immigrant (both legal and illegal) shopping habits, and street construction along Main, and Martinez is pleading for help from community members who have long praised the store but never bothered to stop in.

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"I can't let my baby die," says Martinez, who spoke to the Weekly via cell phone as he was heading to an interview with KPFK-FM 90.7. "I've just put too much into it to let it disappear."

The troubles began a year ago, when Martinez realized his store wasn't hitting the sales number necessary to keep it self-sufficient. To lessen costs, Martinez turned his children's bookstore next door into a nonprofit and began charging speaker's fees for lectures he had long delivered for free. That still wasn't enough, so Martinez began dipping into his retirement savings in order to pay off bills and reorder books. That still wasn't enough, and the store has on occasion fallen behind on the rent to its landlord, the Orange County High School of the Performing Arts. Finances are so precarious that Martinez has even been selling Häagen-Dazs ice-cream bars.

"I thought that by using my savings, business would pick up, and I could repay myself," says Martinez. "That thought left a long time ago."

The world first heard of Martinez's troubles in the April 22 edition of Hoy, the Spanish-language daily tabloid owned by the Los Angeles Times. The issue featured a cross-armed, grim Martinez on the cover, the fit 68-year-old's beloved aisles of books stretching into the horizon with the funereal headline "No Hay Dinero Para Libros" ("There Is No Money for Books"). Since the Hoy article and appearances on Spanish-language television, Librería Martinez has seen a surge in customers—some new, many old.

"We had one guy come in who heard Rueben when he was a student in high school," said store general manager Alice Solis. "Twelve years later, he finally came in to visit." More important, according to Martinez, big-name authors such as Sandra Cisneros and Ana Castillo vow to do book signings within the year to help out.

It might be too late: For the second consecutive year, Librería Martinez didn't have a booth at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books because money's too tight. If Librería Martinez closes, it'll be the latest Southern California independent bookstore to shutter. Dutton's Brentwood Books closed this week, and Long Beach's legendary Acres of Books will soon get redeveloped out of existence.

It's not just increasing sales that can save Librería Martinez, says one volunteer. "We don't need a spike in sales," says Jess Baudillo, a La Habra resident who frequently helps the store with author events. "We need to remind people of what this place is. I'm optimistic that people will realize they might lose the store—hopefully, that will shake people into reality. Hopefully, they'll wake up before it's gone.

"They take it that we're always going to be here," added Solis. "We are [now], but it's tough."

Martinez remains hopeful but also realistic. "I don't have any control of the economy. I know the people buy food, then clothes, then gasoline, and finally books," he says. "I have a lot of pride in doing things on my own, but I got to put it aside and ask everyone for help."

Want to help Librería Martinez? Gustavo Arellano will sign copies of his book ¡Ask a Mexican! at 1110 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 973-7900; Fri., 7 p.m. If you miss it, you can still stop by any time.


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