Bilingual lending library Libros Schmibros, with its puckish Spanglish name and unique business model, arrived in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights in July 2010. At the outset, cofounder David Kipen—then newly returned to his hometown—told PW the space might be a “quixotic” venture, a combination of lending library and low-cost bookstore serving a book desert. Thirteen years later, Libros has become a Los Angeles fixture, encouraging community literacy through bilingual story hours for young readers, book discussion groups, and film screenings.
Kipen has demonstrated his enthusiasm for California in other ways too, editing the anthology Dear L.A. and its new sequel Dear California: The Golden State in Diaries and Letters. The stature of Libros and Kipen has risen to the point where on December 5, California congressman Adam Schiff will host a reception for Kipen and Dear California in Washington, D.C. The occasion gives Kipen the opportunity to tout HR 5192, which would have the U.S. Department of Labor fund a 21st-century Federal Writers’ Project, reminiscent of New Deal programs for writers and artists whose work documented the American experience.
Lending and liberating libros
Libros cofounder and codirector Colleen Jaurretche recalled that prior to the 2010 opening, she and Kipen were planning a different collaboration when “the vacant storefront in Kipen’s building fired his imagination. He wanted to lend his copious books to the public and call the enterprise Libros Schmibros. Somehow, his words came to pass, and four months later we were having the same planning meeting, this time in his nascent lending library, brown paper still on the windows.”
Kipen recalled, “The nucleus of our collection came from my personal library. Then word got around, and book donations started rolling in from all over the neighborhood and beyond, including a complete run of titles donated a few years ago by Library of America.”
The ratio of English-language to Spanish-language titles that come in “hovers around 70–30,” he added. “We aspire to 50–50, but laying hands on decent-condition literature in Spanish—whether for adults or kids—is always a struggle. It really shouldn’t be this way for L.A.”
Initially, visitors to Libros could borrow or purchase titles they liked. After Libros became a fiscally sponsored 501(c)(3) nonprofit, also in 2010, Kipen and Jaurretche reconsidered that approach. “We’re purely a lending library now—albeit one that gives away to each new visitor a free book of their choosing,” Kipen said. “We value the nurturing of home libraries above the policing of overdue books.”
Kipen and Jaurretche, both lecturers in the Writing Programs at UCLA, have long careers in literature, the arts, and publishing. Kipen served as director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts from 2005 to 2010, which shaped his vision for funding creative ventures. “Now that I’m on the other side of the tin cup, I suspect that running a nonprofit is just like running a for-profit business, just with loftier hopes and narrower margins,” he said.
As Libros became better known in Boyle Heights, Kipen and Jaurretche left the original rental space for more permanent digs. From 2012 to 2018, Libros occupied “a well-stocked shoebox next to the Metro subway station on Mariachi Plaza,” Kipen said, referring to a tiny building near a square historically popular among mariachi musicians. In 2018, Libros moved across the street to a storefront “in the landmark 1889 Boyle Hotel. We now have an architect-donated buildout, film-screening capacity, and yes, rolling ladders.”
What began as an experiment became a neighborhood keystone for “reading promotion, film screenings, and whatever we think of next,” all free of charge, Kipen said. He and Jaurretche have kept Libros going because “we discovered, to our astonishment, that we could, that the neighborhood wanted us to, and that we didn’t want to stop.” Young people can apply for Libros summer fellowships, earning a “substantial stipend, to compensate them for the loss of their summer earning power.”
Libros gets operational support from the organization Community Initiatives, whose mission is to help nonprofits handle bookkeeping and administrative responsibilities. This frees the Libros team “to focus exclusively on book-lending and related fun stuff,” Kipen said. Libros still operates on donations, and “every once in a while, if we’re feeling flush, we’ll spring for some new books from local independent booksellers, especially our friends at LA librería,” a Spanish-language children’s bookstore.
As to his past assessment of Libros Schmibros as quixotic, Kipen believes determination has brought the lending library a long way. “If the armor fits, I say wear it,” Kipen said. “More and bigger windmills!”