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Bookseller's plight

To survive, Santa Ana's Libreria Martinez needs more than good intentions.

May 13, 2008

You could write an anthology of sad stories about iconic bookstores across Southern California. Problem is, they'd all have similar plots: Individuals who struggle to nurture a vision of what bookstores can mean, not just to readers but to communities. Debts that grow instead of sales. Landlords with ambitious new plans.

Over the last few months, three extraordinary shops have either closed or are in dire danger. Less than a year ago, this page was celebrating the survival of Dutton’s Brentwood Books after the property owner reconsidered his plans for new development. Crippled by debt, the store closed anyway in April.

Dutton's was the bookstore's bookstore, the place where customers sought expert guidance on every sort of literature. Acres of Books, which is giving in to redevelopment in Long Beach, has been the book hog's mud puddle, miles of shelves where you might lose yourself for the day and find cheap out-of-print treasures among the used tomes.

Perhaps even more remarkable, Libreria Martinez, Santa Ana's nationally honored Latino-themed bookstore, is now threatened. After all, how many booksellers win a MacArthur Foundation genius grant? (Though Rueben Martinez was forced to use some of that $500,000 to pay his store's bills.) For that matter, how odd is it that the landlord forcing the store to move is a charter school for the arts with a well-regarded creative writing program?

Not that the school, which needs more classroom space, is the main culprit here. Even though Libreria Martinez sells Spanish-language materials that aren't common in the big chains, sales have been slipping badly. The Internet makes almost all things available.

Santa Ana is ordering its libraries to buy more of their books from the store, and customers who have heard about its plight are showing up to shop. As the loss of Dutton's shows, though, a moment in the limelight isn't enough to save a cultural institution. Martinez has been a longtime contributor to his local community, as well as to Latinos and literature generally. Now he's in the position of needing long-term support rather than spreading it around. Awkward as that might be for him, the alternative isn't an ending we like to contemplate.

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