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Sowing Literacy Brings Windfall

MacArthur grant recipient Rueben Martinez restyled himself from barber to bookseller.

September 28, 2004|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

When a Kansas schoolteacher named Krista Meisel e-mailed Rueben Martinez to make an appointment with him at his Santa Ana bookstore for last Tuesday, the bookseller didn't think much about it. An erstwhile barber turned nationally recognized missionary for Latino literacy, Martinez met with students and teachers almost every day.

At the appointed hour, however, there was no Krista Meisel. Instead, the telephone at Libreria Martinez Books & Art Gallery rang, and the man on the other end of the line, Daniel J. Socolow, congratulated Martinez for winning a $500,000, no-strings-attached MacArthur Foundation grant.

"I almost hung up on him, because I thought it was a crank call," Martinez recalled. "About a fourth of the way through the conversation, he said, 'Mr. Martinez, don't hang up, because this is the real stuff.' "

To prove it, Socolow asked Martinez if he had an appointment with a certain Krista Meisel for this hour.

"They just wanted to make sure I was here," the bookseller said.

Martinez is one of 23 recipients whose names the foundation formally revealed today. Eight live in California. Martinez is the only one in Southern California and no doubt the only one who cut hair for a living for more than 30 years before opening his bookstore in 1993.

The thought of half a million dollars, to come in quarterly payments of $25,000 for the next five years, has left Martinez a little dazed, he said. Having accustomed himself to the life of a bookseller -- a small, rented apartment in Santa Ana, a 19-year-old Volvo with 342,000 miles -- he's not sure whether he will invest the money in expanding his business, which includes the main store in Santa Ana, a children's bookstore next door and a satellite store in Lynwood, or save some of it for his old age.

"But I'll tell you what, man, the money comes only if I stay alive, so I'm not going to take chances on the road anymore when I ride my bike," he said.

At 64, Martinez is a small, trim, muscular man with perfectly cut gray, swept-back hair and apparently inexhaustible energy. When discussing books and Latino literacy, his dark eyes glow with zeal and his steady stream of words accelerates without warning into a whitewater of exhortation. This he typically delivers bent forward from the waist toward his listeners, his hands churning, a style he has demonstrated from podiums at local grade schools, national booksellers' conventions, as well as Harvard and Oxford universities and the Sorbonne.

"We Latinos are a large population and we're growing fast, but it doesn't do us any good if we don't get educated so we can help the next generation," he said, growing restive on the couch in the bookstore's office. "So, love education," he commands, leaping to his feet. "Work hard. Don't give up. It's all about learning, all about pride, all about life."

The importance of Martinez's mission was underscored by two recent studies showing that about 50% of Latinos graduate from high school nationally, roughly 20 percentage points lower than the overall rate. Moreover, of Latinos entering college, only 23% get bachelor's degrees by age 26, compared with 47% of whites, according to another recent study.

Martinez was born in the tough little desert town of Miami, Ariz., where his parents were copper miners. His mother misspelled his first name on his birth certificate, transposing the "e" and "u" and writing "Rueben," his legal name. (Even the MacArthur people got the name wrong, spelling it "Reuben" on their website.)

A peripatetic boy, he nonetheless was an enthusiastic reader who moved from Edgar Allan Poe to Dumas to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Hemingway as he grew older. His reading fed a fascination with distant locales, and at 18 Martinez set out for Long Beach, a place he had read about. Once he laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean, he knew he would never return to Arizona to live.

Eventually, he built a prosperous life as a hairstylist. He put his three children through college (his son runs a home-remodeling business in Fresno, and his two daughters own an office machine-leasing business in Orange County). With business flourishing, Martinez had money to spare. "I was a Cadillac guy," he said. "I had a Corvette, rings galore -- phony stuff, man."

His metamorphosis into a bookman has been decidedly less pecuniary. "Nowadays," he said, "I don't even own a watch." The life change had its origins in two volumes he kept in his barbershop among the usual sporting magazines. As customers paid increasing attention to the books, Martinez slowly added to the collection.

When the number of books reached 100, Martinez had no choice but to build a bookcase for them. But buying books and lending them out in such numbers began to become financially untenable, and in 1993, when his collection had grown to about 200 volumes, he began selling.

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