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Bustling Outpost of Armenian Culture

Abril Books in Glendale is a touchstone for immigrants and their Americanized offspring.

August 10, 2006|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, with his native Lebanon going up in the flames of civil war, Harout Yeretzian, a Lebanese Armenian, came to Hollywood and joined his brother in founding a magazine devoted to the Armenian language and culture.

One thing led to another. The magazine spawned a print shop, which spawned a bookstore, which spawned a small publishing house.

Three decades later, the brother is gone. So are the magazine and the print shop. Yeretzian's dedication to his people's literature, art and music, however, remains, domiciled now in a cottage-like brick building near Glendale City Hall.

Abril Books, which claims to be the largest of the half-dozen Armenian-language bookstores in the United States, is light-filled, as befits a place of cultural illumination. Open doors, front and back, send air currents eddying among shelves and stacks of Armenian-themed books, including the handful that Abril publishes each year, as well as periodicals, greeting cards and music CDs. Unseen loudspeakers lightly bathe everything in classical cello music.

The 62-year-old Yeretzian is a small bear of a man with a bristling mustache and wavy, gray, sweptback hair. His voice is deep and abraded by a daily succession of Marlboro Lights.

His mission is to help his fellow Armenians maintain their ancient identity. It's not an easy matter for a people that, in the 1st century B.C., ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea but since has been scattered by economic privation and persecution to the far reaches of the Earth. With only a tiny, recently independent, Armenian state to serve as a point of contact for ethnic sensibility, Yeretzian says, literature, art and religion have had to play central roles in sustaining a sense of cohesiveness among the world's Armenian communities.

He cites, as an example, author Krikor Beledian, whom Abril Books publishes. "This guy lives in Paris and teaches at the Sorbonne. He writes in Armenian about Lebanon, and I'm here in L.A., and I publish his books," Yeretzian says.

Abril -- in Armenian the word means both "April" and "hope" -- contains about 5,000 titles, among them histories, novels, volumes of poetry and treatises on Armenian art and music. The books include works in Eastern Armenian, the language of Armenia proper, and Western Armenian, the language of Armenians who hail from more westerly parts of the Middle East, such as Lebanon and Syria. The differences between them, Yeretzian says, are significant, including variations in word suffixes and verb conjugation.

The challenge of multiple languages, however, is not insurmountable for a small ethnic group that has had to live for so long in foreign lands. As a boy in Lebanon, he says, he had to learn Armenian, Arabic, English and French.

"It's not really hard to learn languages," he says, with something like incomprehension at the American aversion to the task. "But here, the American people don't even learn English very well."

Preserving the Armenian language among young Armenian Americans is becoming a bit of a problem, however. Yeretzian says that at his original store, off Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, 80% of the books he carried were in Armenian and 20% in English. In his present store, which opened in 1998, Armenian-language books constitute only about half of his stock. The other half is by Americans of Armenian descent -- such as Peter Balakian, author of "Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America's Response" -- who write in English.

(Yeretzian notes that nearly half of the books in English refer to the massacres of Armenians by Turkish authorities from 1915 to 1923, while barely a quarter of the Armenian-language books deal with the subject. Both of Yeretzian's grandfathers died in the executions and forced starvations, which took the lives, it is estimated, of 800,000 to 1.5 million Armenian men, women and children.)

Abril sold books to the Los Angeles Unified School District when instruction for newly arrived immigrant children was conducted in Armenian. Those sales ended, a significant blow to Abril's business, in 1998 with the passage of Proposition 227, which virtually banned bilingual education in California.

As with other ethnic groups, assimilation of the young into American culture is a concern to many older Armenians. The experience of Yeretzian's own son Arno, a 30-year-old filmmaker, is a case in point.

Arno, the only child of Yeretzian and his artist/gallery owner wife, Seeroon, attended Armenian private schools through high school. All of his friends were Armenian. Then he enrolled at UC Santa Cruz and, as one of the relatively few Armenian Americans there, befriended students of different ethnic backgrounds.

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