On a rainy afternoon in 2010, a man is running, completely soaked in his orange CalTrans suit as he ducks into the Libros Schmibros lending library in Boyle Heights. He calls out, “I only have a minute. Do you have some Trotsky?” “In English or Spanish?” replies co-founder Colleen Jaurretche.
Located in the iconic Mariachi Plaza in historic Boyle Heights, where since the 1930s mariachis have gathered to serenade the city in hopes of being hired by passersby, Libros Schmibros serves a new generation of passersby of all ages. Many are bilingual or non-English speaking. They come with their children, or stop in on their way to or from work to find an array of literary treasures. They even duck in out of the rain, taking a chance without much time to spare and are rewarded with a Spanish translation of a Russian revolutionary.
“The Boyle Heights community is our first and foremost concern,” says co-founder David Kipen. “Putting books into people’s hands four days a week with hopes for more.” When Kipen an author, UCLA professor and frequent book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal, L.A. Times, New York Times, and on KPCC, relocated to Boyle Heights in 2010, he learned that local libraries city-wide were going to start closing on Mondays, leaving residents who were already in a literary desert with even less access to books. He and Colleen Jaurretche, a fellow UCLA professor, reviewer and essayist, joined forces and launched the library shortly after. Book lovers don’t necessarily need to live in Boyle Heights to enjoy the lending library; you can visit Thursdays – Sundays and checkout up to three books at a time after purchasing a $5 membership. But the library’s accessibility doesn’t stop there.
Last year, in an effort to create a flexible program that would be a playful, creative way to get books into people’s hands, a generous gift from The Metabolic Studio allowed Libros to pilot their Bicycle Libraries. Custom bicycles outfitted with book carriers on each side serve as a library on the move. The Bicycle Libraries have inspired many students from local high schools to volunteer and ride the bikes all over the city. “The heart of the program is that they instigate conversation about literature with the general public. To their delight, people are overwhelmingly happy and grateful to receive a book, and when the kids come back, they share with us all of those wonderful conversations,” said Jaurretche. Next year, USC is looking to partner with Libros to develop a bicycle library model for its campus.
Despite the rich cultural and language diversity within Boyle Heights, not one public library in the area offers bilingual story hours for children. In the coming months, Libros will be launching a series of podcasts for bilingual children in an effort to expand the reach of their Children’s Reading Hour, which currently take place the last Sunday of every month and are led by bilingual librarians. In addition, Libros plans to put writers into classrooms for ten weeks to encourage kids to explore writing for fun and creativity, rather than as a chore.
Kipen’s and Jaurretche’s driving force has been their shared passion for books and for literary accessibility for people of all ages and cultures, no matter where they reside in the city. But they also stay focused on their mission thanks to supporters. “It’s the encouragement not just of the newspapers and generous funders, it was the encouragement of Community Partners. Community Partners has been right there for us in a number of ways,” said Kipen.
Jaurretche agreed: “The encouragement and mentoring from Cynthia Freeman, from Paul, and from everybody helping us with the business, administration, and the management side as a project has made these last six years possible… because there was no way we were going to be able to continue to grow the idea of Libros without that kind of support. It’s been an honor to be alongside so many other remarkable projects and it makes us feel really good!” Kipen adds, “It emboldens us to keep going, to keep putting books into people’s hands, because not only do you not know where any book you pick-up at Libros has been, you don’t know where it’s going.”