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Outpost of literature feeds the body and the mind

March 24, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

Somewhere up in poet heaven, Roque Dalton is a happy man.

Just across the street from MacArthur Park, the town square of Central American immigrants in Los Angeles, a tiny storefront has an entire shelf dedicated to the works of the Salvadoran writer, who died in 1975.

Dalton's poems celebrate the tenacity of Salvadorans and their diaspora across the Americas. If his books had eyes, they could look through the store's glass window and see his countrymen hawking snow cones and tacos outside.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda lives inside the Libreria Hispanoamerica too. His "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair" is a popular item there, as is the work of another Nobel laureate, the Guatemalan novelist Miguel Angel Asturias.

Spotting great literature in the shadow of the park's aging palm trees, in a corner of the city once infamous for the sale of crack cocaine and sex, felt at first like stumbling upon a mirage.

One of the local alcoholics thought so too. First, he wandered over from the park's lawns and skeptically inspected the freshly swept sidewalks in front of the bookstore. Then, persuaded they were real, he stepped inside.

"Senora, you've earned a spot in heaven," he told owner Aura Quezada. "Because in this place where everyone opens liquor stores, you have opened a bookstore."

The bookstore is still open, despite some recent hard times, thanks to an informal network of activists, shoppers, businesspeople and city officials. Together, they believe MacArthur Park can remain a place where good people gather. And they're not going to give up just because there's less cash floating around.

They've tossed the old, bottom-line ways of thinking about this neighborhood out the window. And whether you call their philosophy anti-economics or just plain solidarity, we need more of it to get our city out of the hole we're in.

Aura and her husband, the Guatemalan novelist Roberto Quezada, started selling books instead of cheap wine on 7th Street because they saw something more than money when they looked at the people who reside and shop there.

"We don't live from what we make here," Aura told me. "It's a kind of hobby for us. We do it for our customers because they depend on us."

The Quezadas live on Roberto's salary as a court interpreter. They've survived as booksellers, in part, thanks to a neighbor -- the legendary tamale cook Sandra Romero of Mama's Hot Tamales.

Sales have dipped for Romero's tamale restaurant so she's rented a part of her space to the bookstore in the hope that together they can weather the economic storm. If either had to close, Romero said, "We would lose our eyes on the park."

The bookstore and the tamale restaurant, along with a handful of other nonprofits and development projects in the surrounding streets, are anchors that keep the park from drifting back to a crime-ridden past.

The restaurant draws connoisseurs with its excellent tamales. The bookstore's customers, for the most part, are hungry too -- for knowledge.

The Quezadas' most loyal patrons include a Salvadoran bus driver, a school janitor from Honduras and several dozen Guatemalan garment workers who buy a new, thick Spanish-language dictionary-encyclopedia every year.

The garment workers are Kanjobal Indians for whom Spanish is a second language and English a third. To them, the Pequeno Larousse Ilustrado, with its "200,000 word definitions and 5,000 illustrations" is well worth the $42 price.

The Quezadas founded the bookstore in 1996 with books from Roberto's private collection.

They gave their store the name of a large and famous bookseller in San Salvador, thus triggering happy memories for many of the Salvadorans who walk past.

Many of the customers are like Julio Lozano, a Salvadoran bus driver from the San Fernando Valley who used to live in the neighborhood. He shops in MacArthur Park instead of his local mall, he said, because it's "the cradle of Central Americans" in Los Angeles.

Until recently, the bookstore occupied a storefront about two blocks from the park's western boundary.

In January, the Quezadas learned their rent at that location was being doubled. "We hadn't missed a payment in 12 years, but it didn't matter," he said.

Fortunately for their customers, they found help.

Jose Gardea, chief of staff to City Councilman Ed Reyes, heard of the bookstore's plight. The councilman's office, in turn, called Romero, the person many in the area go to when they see trouble.

Besides the restaurant, Romero also has trained hundreds of people to start and run their own small businesses.

Romero has skills that are in short supply in neighborhoods like the Westlake-MacArthur Park district. Once a welfare mom, she now excels at lobbying, pleading with and cajoling local officials.

She talks regularly with senior lead officers of the LAPD, the district attorney's office, City Council members and their field representatives.

"A few months ago, I felt we were slipping back," Romero said. She and others then requested another meeting with city officials. Soon after, among other things, surveillance cameras at the park were repaired.

Each one of us controls our own little stimulus package. So go buy a tamal or a book on 7th Street or at another struggling shopping district near you.

You'll eat well, feed your mind, and help keep a corner of the city a vibrant and healthy place.

--

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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