Book Justice for All

"So, this is an installation, as it were. And it's also a bookstore." -- Quote from anonymous patron.

I wrote down the above remark while working in Libros Schmibros Lending Library and Bookshop, where I am co-director. Currently we are installed as a fully functioning library and bookshop in the ground floor gallery of UCLA's Hammer Museum in Westwood -- an honor anyone would find grand, especially one engaged in activities like book lending and selling that are not commonly regarded as art forms.

Libros Schmibros is not an ordinary bookstore or a library but a combination of the two, with some twists. Opened to coincide with the closure due to budget cuts of the Los Angeles County Public Library, Libros' progenitor David Kipen made his copious personal library available to everyone. Anybody can borrow a book for free, or anyone can keep the same book for a suggested donation price of half off publisher's list. Libros Schmibros is located in Boyle Heights, a Los Angeles neighborhood that was one of the original great immigrant strongholds of the country, with every ethnicity represented, but at one time an unusually high proportion of Jewish, and now of Spanish-speaking, residents. The neighborhood is working-class, with little or no computer or electronic device access and limited library service. Residents of Boyle Heights get the Libros Schmibros neighborhood rate: each book a dollar.

We have survived for over a year with our Boyle Heights flagship intact, and now a temporary residency at the Hammer, where we keep parallel hours and find ourselves in a unique situation. We're a funky barrio library/bookshop with the imprimatur of a major museum -- a set of circumstances that begs the questions, "Are we art? And if so, why?"

Despite the fact that Westwood, like many college towns across the country, once supported multiple bookshops, the Hammer's invitation does not stem from fear of bookstore extinction, but from the ideas behind the inception of the shop. At Libros Schmibros Westwood, as in Boyle Heights, not only can you get a book without resorting to a computer interface, you can also experience what book browsing and shopping always used to mean, and has meant for centuries: time set aside for exploration, self-creation, invention, and just plain pleasure. Such time is sacred, and our presence at the Hammer underscores a simple but overlooked truth: that, like museums, libraries and bookshops are settings for cultural dissemination through ritual exchange. Similar to stage, classroom and altar, they are places where communities transform around the perception of books as beautiful, and literature as art.

"What do you like to read?" -- David's usual question to patrons.

Bookselling grew out of religious activity and the urge to make knowledge available. In Europe the first purveyors of books set up stalls along cathedral walls, and closes so that students and scholars could pass by and browse for what they needed. The tradition of the library predates the advent of European bookselling, and has a slightly different premise: all books, and all knowledge, gathered under one roof.

At Libros Schmibros we know that we are not a library in the Alexandrine sense of the term, and it's not our serious ambition to have every good book. We try to ask each patron what they like or want, and to recommend books if asked. Just as often, the patron is a book donor, come to our stoop laden with offerings from their own personal libraries. If the books suit our collection they are accepted, and integrated somewhere into our shelves, or in the piles of books that wait and multiply in various storage units.

Our core team, composed of Kipen, Catherine Fryszczyn, Andrew Vasquez and myself, is committed to the ideal of books as the basis of all learning, available for active use, as well as objects of veneration. In the recycling of books from donor to patron, two things happen: Good books get into the hands of good people in Boyle Heights and beyond, and the city itself enjoys a kind of literary respiration. We're about books but, foremost, we're about people and ideas.


Such community exchange works on a local, citywide, national, and international scale. Libros Schmibros was born on the corner of First and Cummings, across from Corazon del Pueblo Community Arts Center, and Casa 0101 Theater, in the heart of a neighborhood filled with story, history, and multi-ethnic association, and nostalgia good and bad. It was also born in the middle of planning a James Joyce conference and literary festival at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, as well as the California Institute of Technology. Once the reviled Hollenbeck Precinct of Joseph Wambaugh fame, our corner of Boyle Heights has over the last year organized in-shop readings, book launches, and large-scale international literary convenings. For the present moment, we remain cell-divided as a museum installation.

All this fits us, as Boyle Heights itself is seeded with radical history, leftist politics, and highbrow English and Spanish literary tastes. Our collection in both locations is an accumulation of what we think is good, a cabinet of curiosities in alphabetical order. Festooned as we are with Mexican papel picado, Chinese lanterns and pink baby lights -- decorations of a party long gone by -- we are a place where it is ok to talk about books and where during business hours nobody ever asks you to leave. Neither a cloister nor a college, we nonetheless serve a related need: to be proximate to a kind of scripture, and to those who serve it.

Part of the thrill of our Hammer Museum presence is the opportunity to have literary programs twice a week. The theme of our installation is simple: the reunion of East and West Los Angeles. To that end we are alternating our events between Libros Boyle Heights and Libros Westwood, and conceive these happenings like the rest of the transactions in our stores: conceptual art pieces of a kind, or bits of theater that require public participation. The presence of authors, together with paintings by artist friends that decorate both shops, demonstrates our idea of the bookshop as a cultural space for the visual and performing arts. We activate these spaces, and reactivate the legacy of book vendors of old in both neighborhoods -- once so rich in the rituals of lending and selling and receiving books from others.

"I've only got a minute. Do you have some Trotsky?" -- quote from a municipal worker in Boyle Heights.

Our artistic approach to working with books may seem antithetical to the money exchange that happens under our roof, or to the impresario role we play in dreaming up public events. But the point is that an exchange takes place, one that is verbal, and, in the instance of money, symbolic.

In that exchange, the books themselves become art objects, charged figures in a contemporary cultural conversation about obsolescence. In a very real sense we are reviving the extinct, on offering up the very ritual we crave so deeply: the chance to lose and find oneself again in a work of art, and the ability to encounter the artist. In each instance, ideally we provide a moment of transformation that itself defines the experience of art.

By these lights we are artist-curators of a library and bookshop. We are a spot for browsing and diversion, but also a place where readers across a broad spectrum come to get their drug of choice in quantity, depth and volume. As such we are participants, co-dependents in the building of personal libraries. Once the prerogative of wealth, luxury, independence, decadence, religious temperament, and learning, we put the beginnings of a household library within reach of the community of neighbors, artists and thinkers represented in our shop. We not only meet a practical but an aesthetic need for tangible objects, talismans of literary encounter whose acquisition feels nearly as profound as the artistic encounter in their pages.

Libros Schmibros is based on a simple premise of extending the book franchise to all. In this sense ours is an art practice with a particular political inflection: book justice, where even in an impoverished environment, one and all can hope to gather intellectual and artistic riches. Our philanthropic mission is no different from the original -- and uninterrupted -- role of libraries in the foundation of democratic culture since the Enlightenment: the extension of print learning to all.

The process of book acquisition, and reading itself, is a cultural activity above and beyond the contents or quality of a given book. Our mission is not for literacy per se, but for a form of expression -- bookwork, in all its varied forms -- that is under threat. Lending and owning books is basic to culture and the building of community, and essential to democracy. It is a gesture of basic humanity that we cannot afford to lose.

"Libros Schmibros is haimish." -- Wanda Coleman, poet

A museum is not a mausoleum; rather, it is a place to bring people, ideas, and works of art together. In this sense, Libros Schmibros at the Hammer Museum is right where it belongs. Like the museum that temporarily houses it, it is a site for self-creation, with an awareness of its noble precursors and their roles in the realization of art through art: altar, theater, and athenaeum. But mostly it is a place, to echo Tom Stoppard in Travesties, where 'if you had a chit from Matron you were let off to spend the afternoon messing around in the Art Room." Ours is a Platonic bookshop, one that pays tribute to all other bookshops as sites of artistic experience. Libros Schmibros is brick and mortar, but it is also conceptual. At the Hammer we are not singled out as extraordinary, but as emblems of that which is extraordinary--the presence of books in the world. We take this opportunity to be both cerebral and celebratory, seeing writing as the ineradicably human art form it is, and seeking to dynamite any intervening class or geographical barriers.

Western bookselling began with stalls huddled against walls of cathedrals. How fitting an evolution for Libros Schmibros to exist within the demesne of Los Angeles' great public university and under the wing of its secular temple, a museum. But we are still on First and Cummings in the Hollenbeck precinct, where our neighbors worked so hard to realize the community's aspirations and where our own immigrant ancestors lived and died. Libros Schmibros exists for all the people who have paused before its door and, regardless of origin, we are all from Boyle Heights.