The first bookseller to win a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation fellowship award, Rueben Martinez has big plans for the funds. The owner of Libreria Martinez Books & Art Gallery in Santa Ana, Calif., and cofounder (with actor Edward James Olmos) of the Latino Book Festival, plans to open 25 bilingual Libreria Martinez bookstores in various Latino communities by 2012.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards, dubbed "genius grants" by journalists, are awarded as an "investment in a person's originality, insight and potential." One of the winners, announced earlier this fall, was Martinez, a barber by trade, who started lending and then selling English- and Spanish-language books out of his barbershop in the 1980s, opened a full-scale Spanish/English-language bookstore—with a barbershop on the side—in 1993. It quickly became a cultural institution.
"Certainly what Rueben has done to date is important and creative," Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, told the Orange Country Register. "We're betting he'll continue doing great things, maybe even greater things."
Martinez's philosophy is quite simple: "If you do good things, then people want to do good things with you," he said, sitting in the antique barber chair given to him years ago by a local entrepreneur. "If you do bad things, then you run into people who do bad things."
Covering the walls of Martinez's office/barbershop housed within his main bookstore on Main Street are plaques, pictures and testimonies of all the good things the bookseller (who likes to stop and tell random customers "You are in your bookstore") has done within the local and national Latino community. The inscriptions read pretty much the same from award to award: "For your leadership in the California Latino Community as well as your contributions to literacy and the promotion of a vibrant Latino culture through art and literature." But after he shared the inscription with PW, his faced brightened as if he was reading the words for the first time. "I like that," he said.
Opening Minds, Opening Books
When PW visited Martinez, he had already been featured in news stories in USA Today, Time and even on Chinese television. One of his favorite writeups appeared in the Santa Ana College paper. It said that Martinez "encourages communities to open their minds by opening their books." The laudatory words were made more poignant for the bookseller because he knew the young journalist as a customer in his store. "They are the future," he said.
Just two weeks after the MacArthur fellowships were announced, the local community was still celebrating the award as if it was its own.
Martinez told PW how he recently spotted an elderly woman passing by the store very slowly. "I went outside and said, 'Buenos dias, senora.' " (Martinez said he speaks Spanish with his customers about 85% of the time.) He recalled that she said, "I know you, but you don't know me. You have been working like an ant for years, you deserve this award."
"This award is bringing the Latino community and all communities together," said Martinez. "Spanish is bringing everyone together."
Almost on cue, a non-Latino woman from a neighboring business popped her head through the office/barbershop window to congratulate Martinez. If it is possible to beam and be humble at the same time, that was how Martinez reacted to every compliment (and there were many throughout the day).
"It was a complete surprise," he replied to the woman. In fact, when the MacArthur representative called about the award, Martinez thought it was a joke.
Martinez takes his commitment to the Spanish-speaking community very seriously. A longtime proponent of bilingual education, Martinez said that California's vote in 2002 for English-only in the schools was the biggest disappointment in his life. "It was like a knife through my heart," he said. "I'm for trilingual education," he added. "Learn as many languages as you can." For the Latino community—especially in California—he said Spanish is business language. "That's why Spanish literature is booming."
Of course he pushes the work of Latino literary lions including Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes (many who Martinez knows personally), but he is also tireless in his promotion of children's literature. When PW met with Martinez, he had been up since 4 a.m. so that he could record his weekly "El Club de Libritos" ("The Little Books Club") on the Spanish-language Univision network where he reads children's books and encourages parents to do the same. (He reads in Spanish, but he said he sneaks in a little English because the children and their parents need both languages.)
At speaking engagements all over the country, Martinez has trumpeted the benefits of Spanish and English literacy in the Hispanic community. "The population is growing," he said, adding that unlike the Mexican immigrants of the 1940s who stressed English over Spanish, this generation wants its children to speak and read its native language.
Million Words a Year
From the huge portrait of Frida Kahlo behind the counter to the copies of Bill Clinton's Mi Vida (more than 150 pages longer in its Spanish translation), every inch of Libreria Martinez Books is a celebration of Hispanic culture as part of American life. To this day, Martinez's favorite book to hand-sell is The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo.
"I tell students to read one story a day," he told PW. "If you read 20 minutes every day, then you will read a million words in a year. We try to make reading contagious, like a bad cold."
Later that afternoon, two young boys dropped into the store and hovered around the entrance sneaking a glimpse at Martinez as if he were a rock star. Martinez seized the opportunity to engage the children and asked them if they speak Spanish. "Seventy-five percent of Americans only speak one language. Here we have kids who speak two languages," he said, beaming again. One of the boys said he saw Martinez on television recently saying something about reading a million words in a year.
He asked the boys—ages 11 and 12—if they had library cards. "You can borrow the books for free there," he said. "But I want to see you more often. I tell you what; I'll make you a deal. You can come here and do your homework, but I want to see your library cards."
"They are the future if they just stay on the right highway to the university," he said, after the boys left. "And I'm doing everything I can to keep them there."
Martinez caught the reading bug at a young age, growing up in Miami, Ariz., the son of copper miners. His mother misspelled his first name—transposing the "e" and "u" writing Rueben—which even the MacArthur Foundation did not originally catch. But Martinez said he doesn't let such things bother him.
He remembered fondly his mother forcing him away from his books and outside to clean the yard. He did as he was told—almost—tucking a book in the waistband of his pants before picking up a broom. He missed school only one day that he remembers in the fifth grade when, as bad luck would have it, Hopalong Cassidy's sidekick, Smiley Burnett, paid a visit to the school that day. But it wasn't the sting of missing a rare celebrity visit to Miami, Ariz. that kept in him school. "I never missed school because school is where they had the books," Martinez said.
At 18 he moved to Long Beach and then East Los Angeles, where he worked several jobs before becoming a barber. He liked the clean white aprons and the profession, but thought their reading material could be improved. When he opened his first shop in Santa Ana just a few blocks from his current bookstore location, Martinez lent his own books and eventually built a bookcase and started selling them. He gives very few haircuts anymore and, while he made more money as a barber than a bookseller, he said he couldn't be happier with his career change.
"I am not only a bookseller, I'm a life giver," he told PW. "The bookstore is daughter of the barbershop," he said, adding, "It sounds better in Spanish."
Along with the Santa Ana store and its children's annex next door, Libreria Martinez Books has another store in Linwood, Calif. The stores are managed by Alice Solis and John Reza, respectively, and each employs a part-time staff of two young women, who, Martinez is proud to say, all attend college.
Concerning his plan to open 25 more Libreria Martinez locations in Latino communities around the country, Martinez said, "Someone is going to do it. I'd like for us to do it."
Martinez is lining up investors now for this expansion and hopes to create a legacy of education and pride. All the stores will continue to have a barber chair because Martinez said it serves as a symbol for the children. "They need to know that they can do whatever they want to do," he said. "If we all get together in the educational world and the business world, from the top to the bottom, then we can meet in the middle and create a revolution of reading."