A recent Census Bureau survey found that in Los Angeles County, almost 57% of California residents speak a language other than English at home. And yet, in Los Angeles, a city of 4.9 million Hispanics, with 64.6% of children enrolled in its public schools identifying as Latino, there wasn’t a single Spanish-language bookstore for children.
At least, not until last month, when friends Celene Navarrete and Chiara Arroyo opened La Librería, a Spanish-language bookstore for children, on 4732 1/2 W. Washington Boulevard in Central Los Angeles.
Both Navarrete and Arroyo were part of the book fair committee at their children’s school, Edison Language Academy in Santa Monica. They were very disappointed to see the lack of quality Spanish-language literature for children being brought to the fair. “We weren’t seeing the books that we were expecting, the books we read as children,” Arroyo said. “We weren’t seeing the books our friend’s children were reading in Spanish-speaking countries. We have our own beautiful collection of children’s books at home, and it was sad for us to think that only our children or some children were able to have those books, and not the whole school. So we decided to improve things.”
Arroyo, originally from Spain, and Navarrete, from Mexico, started to contact publishers and bring books to fairs themselves. “We started with two little tables and we sold out. Then the word spread because principals, teachers, librarians, and families were so happy, saying it was what they had been waiting for,” said Arroyo. “We had to make a decision. Either we did it only for our children’s school, or we actually took the project on professionally, as a business. So we decided to go for it.”
After their success with school book fairs, they launched an online store, and finally opened the doors to their brick and mortar bookstore on February 21. “We took slow steps getting here because we wanted to know the market very well,” said Arroyo. “We didn’t believe the numbers being published. The book fairs in schools became a very important opportunity for us to identify what the needs were, because every school and community is different.” Their collection has 2,000 titles; the store is 700 square feet.
The pair travel internationally, to countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, and Spain, to find Spanish-language children’s books. “There’s important research behind our curated selection. We don’t just go through catalogs. We actually go to Spanish-speaking countries and meet with authors, editors, and publishers and are very aware of what’s going on in those countries.”
Arroyo has a background in journalism, editing, and organizing book fairs for independent publishers, and Navarrete teaches at the College of Business and Public Administration at CSU, Dominguez Hills. Their combined skills were helpful when launching the business.
But Arroyo notes that the most important thing is that they are both native Spanish-speakers. “It’s a very basic, but very important thing. This is our own language so we are able to understand what’s going on. That’s important because sometimes when we go to fairs we see people behind the booth selling books and they don’t even speak the language. How are you going to know if that book is good or not if you don’t understand the language?”
The two say the store’s success has been overwhelming, with people coming from as far away as Tijuana. “We’ve received many visitors. It’s not just Spanish-speaking families; there are other non-Spanish families who want their children to be bilingual. Teachers, librarians, and community leaders came out and welcomed us. They share our enthusiasm. It’s very encouraging.” Navarrete agreed. “People stop by and often say they’ve been waiting for something like this for many years.”
“We see parents reading their children the stories they used to read when they were children,” said Arroyo. “Just imagine a family that has traveled to this country reading a story to their child where they can say, that’s my place, my home, my history, the music I used to hear.” Navarrete noted that the illustrations in the books are also powerful. “For families that cannot travel abroad, they definitely love to see their culture through these illustrated stories.”
During the week, Navarrete and Arroyo work by appointment with librarians, teachers, and educators, helping to suggest books: the store is open to the public during the weekends. According to Arroyo, it’s “like a showroom during the week, and on the weekends it turns into a bookstore. The librarians and teachers want to spend time making their selections and ask questions; if you have a lot of people in the store that’s difficult to do.”
The women are planning a non-profit branch of their company that will allow them to provide access to families who cannot afford to buy books by creating a lending library. It will also support a series of events and social programming to promote reading in Spanish. They partner with LeaLA, Los Angeles’s annual Spanish language book festival, and they are collaborating with REFORMA’s Children in Crisis program, where they will bring books to migrant immigrant children who live in refugee centers on the border.
In collaboration with Canana and Televisa Foundation, La Librería also published its first book, a graphic novel, Luis y Jennifer en: César Chávez & la máquina del tiempo (Luis and Jennifer in: Cesar Chavez and the Time Machine). It’s both a print book and an interactive book where children can download a free app to learn more about the life of farm worker and labor activist Cesar Chavez.
Both women note a shift taking place in language and literature. “There’s always been this attitude that Spanish literature and literature in English need to be separated,” Arroyo said. “That attitude has to be changed, because this young generation doesn’t see that separation. These children travel between worlds and languages, and we need books that represent that. This isn’t just our effort – this is a whole community effort. Something is changing. There’s a special momentum and we are part of this.”