Returning to Los Angeles in April after living in Washington, D.C., for nearly five years where he was the NEA director of literature, David Kipen, former book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, is planning to open a lending library and used- book store later this month. Libros Schmibros will be located in the heart of what was the first orthodox Jewish enclave in East Los Angeles, now populated by a creative Hispanic community in the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
Kipen's decision to open the store had an unlikely beginning. Riding the Gold Line subway in Los Angeles, Kipen found a copy of Brooklyn & Boyle, a community newspaper that serves the East L.A. arts community. "There was an event listed at Corazon del Pueblo, an arts collective, and I decided to get off at Mariachi station and go there on a whim," he says. After being welcomed by the artists and writers at Corazon del Pueblo: Arts, Education, and Action, Kipen noticed the "For Rent" sign on the building directly across the street before he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the space. His idea for a used-book store quickly germinated. "I tried to talk myself out of it," he says. "But I kept coming back here on the weekends and started making friends on the block hand over fist." He finally negotiated a six-month lease on the storefront and moved into the 1,500-square-foot space soon after. It includes living quarters, so Kipen is now an official resident of Boyle Heights.
The initial stock for Libros Schmibros is coming largely from Kipen's personal library of 6,000 books, which will be augmented by used books Kipen is buying from various places. Launch date is July 19, the first day the local Benjamin Franklin Public Library branch will be closed on Mondays because of budget cuts. Kipen's quirky lending library policy dictates that people can check out one book at a time for a period based on its number of pages. "Short book, short loan," he explains. "Long book, long loan. And if they want to keep a book, wonderful. I'll charge a buck just to make the statement that books have value. That's for the people of Boyle Heights, but for my friends outside the area I'm going to gouge them to underwrite the whole operation."
An indication that this new venture is more than a hobby for Kipen emerges when he's asked if he'll be purchasing any new books to sell at Libros Schmibros. "I'm trying to establish relationships with the faculty of East L.A. College, in the English and Spanish literature departments," Kipen says. "It's possible that I could become one of their vendors for course books." As Boyle Heights becomes more gentrified, Kipen is also willing to stock new books if the neighborhood calls for them. Store hours will be 10 a.m.–6 p.m., and Kipen is considering filing to make the store a nonprofit.
It remains to be seen whether people from the west side of Los Angeles will make the drive to Boyle Heights to visit Libros Schmibros. It is, after all, a city with severe traffic problems, and residents tend to stick close to their own neighborhoods rather than brave the freeways. "I take myself as a test case," Kipen says. "Did I know anything about Boyle Heights before I got here? No. There will be wrong turns literally and figuratively before people find it, but they will find it. Libros Schmibros is meant to be a mainstay of the neighborhood, but it's not for anybody in particular—it's for everybody."
Kipen gives a nod to the generosity of publishers who supplied him with books and galleys during the seven years he worked at the Chronicle. "As many of my books that came my way as a critic and editor, I picked up in my sticky-fingered way since my childhood," Kipen notes. "A lot of galleys I bought at used-book sales. I don't feel like a profiteer. I'm going to be lending as many books as I'll be selling, and those I'll primarily sell for a buck." He also intends to actively cross-promote with Corazon del Pueblo.
After a difficult departure from the NEA last December, Kipen finds Los Angeles to be a healing place. "I wish I'd come back before I did," he says. "Libros Schmibros is quixotic enough as it is without kidding myself that it's a moneymaking venture. I'd be happy to have it grow organically. Whatever the neighborhood supports, I'm all for. I'm making all these new friends, and my Spanish is improving by leaps and bounds—and so is my Yiddish."