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VALLEY PERSPECTIVE

Deny a Community Bookstore, Deny a Culture's Heart and Soul

Such enterprises, especially those based in Latino strongholds, offer more than just books. City fathers sometimes seem not to understand this.

August 06, 2000|MARY HELEN PONCE | Mary Helen Ponce is a Sunland writer

As a lover and writer of books, one of my life goals is to someday own a bookstore--a Pacoima bookstore--in the same neighborhood where I once lived. I envision it on Van Nuys Boulevard, within walking distance of the community and the predominantly Latino population of the San Fernando Gardens, Van Nuys Pierce Park Apartments and Pacoima Urban Village. Its walls would overflow with books: old, new, used, English, Spanish. Comfy chairs would entice patrons to sit and read; a fireplace would add warmth and atmosphere.

Bookstores are my favorite haunt. Most weekends, rather than hit the mall, I scrounge them for current bestsellers, a favorite author or reference works (anthropology, history) that sell for a pittance; I like to breathe the dust that coats old books.

To bookstore aficionados, a.k.a. serious readers, nothing can compare to the excitement of locating, at long last, a rare book and to read it while sipping a cuppa--espresso or cappuccino. It's almost like being in pig heaven! Which is why I felt cheated when the San Fernando City Council voted against $170,000 of city redevelopment funds for Espresso Mi Cultura, a Latino-owned bookstore and coffee shop based in Hollywood, to subsidize a second bookstore, cafe and performance center in downtown San Fernando.

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Although ignorant of the politics inherent in the decision, I was sorely disturbed, more so because earlier this year $125,000 was approved by the council for the establishment of a Starbucks coffee shop. That the council denied funds to Espresso Mi Cultura yet approved funding from the city's $3-million redevelopment fund to the trendy coffee conglomerate rankles.

When I was growing up there were few bookstores in the San Fernando Valley. Had it not been for the San Fernando Public Library near the high school I attended (where I dearly paid for overdue books), I might never have developed a love of the written word. But since the 1980s, Latino-owned bookstores, most of which cater to a Latino readership (Mexican, Peruvians, Salvadorans) have proliferated throughout the Southwest. Many make available books for community colleges and universities, in addition to the public.

Rueben Martinez, owner of Libreria Martinez Books & Art Gallery in Santa Ana has for more than eight years organized cultural events, book discussion groups and writing workshops for the Latino community. Often he donates books to worthy causes. Martinez credits his Spanish-language clientele (85%) for keeping his bookstore afloat. He works closely with local librarians to ensure that those who cannot buy books can read them at the library for free.

City fathers often fail to understand that Hispanic bookstores, especially those based in Latino strongholds, offer more than just books.

They are a gathering place for artists, aspiring writers, dancers, musicians. Most are committed to enhancing their respective communities; they promote literacy and literature, sponsor writing workshops and, more importantly, generate and diffuse culture.

Many carry the hard-to-find books required in Chicano studies courses. I know a bookstore owner who drives to Tijuana for books not available from U.S. book wholesalers.

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The San Fernando City Council has a responsibility to act with caution when dispensing dollars from the city redevelopment pie; there is only so much to go around. But Valley residents, especially students from nearby Mission College, hungry for a place in which to enjoy cultural events, sip un cafecito, buy books--and yes, hang out--must wait and wait until elected officials heed the needs of the community.

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