Libros, shmibros

Along Corrientes Avenue in Buenos Aires dozens of bookstores used to offer us knowledge through the printed word. There, I would leaf through controversial volumes of protest and philosophical thought or booklets of poems or famous novels. But many years ago they disappeared from my hometown — and so did I.

I used to feel so proud to be part of the human race — its creative genius and the beauties of the soul that it had produced — when I visited bookstores.

I felt that again as I passed through the glass door of Libros Schmibros in Boyle Heights two weeks ago.

The bookstore is new, small and humble. It opened on a Monday in July, the same day the Ben Franklin Public Library, just two blocks away, reduced its hours to five days a week because of budget cuts.

I did wonder about the bookstore’s name.

“Of all the people in the world, you’re the last one who should need to ask that,” said David Kipen, the owner of the place.

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He’s right. ‘Schmibros’ is a humorous, almost self-deprecating, Yiddish interjection. It’s familiar in the dialect my grandparents spoke, a linguistic touch that unites many Jews the world over.

Kipen is a writer and translator who spent seven years as the literary critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. He opened Libros Schmibros upon his return to his native Los Angeles after a stint as literature director at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Kipen moved to a building on corner of the Boyle Heights district on the Eastside, a decidedly Spanish-speaking dominion, after he found a storefront that had been empty for years. There’s a small community theater and a Bohemian café and a popular taco stand down the block.

Libros Schmibros added seven thousand volumes to the block’s offerings, most of them books that Kipen accumulated during his journalistic career. Shelves and racks of varying origins followed. A few desks; a couple of old sofas and chairs soon arrived.

When I arrived for a recent visit, two kids were leafing through books. Jonathan, a student at nearby Roosevelt High School, is interested in photography. David showed him an extraordinary volume and the two of them read, so fascinated that their eyes are as wide as plates.

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Kipen wants to work with neighborhood schools and community colleges, offering the volumes required by curriculum. He wants to advertise in their school newspapers to draw kids will come and dive into the endless knowledge and enjoyment of the printed word.

Libros Schmibros is open from 12 noon to 7 p.m. (sometimes 8 p.m.) on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturday. The books are loaned, but can also be purchased at prices starting at $1.

Libros Schmibros is located at 2000 East 1st Street, at Cummings. Come and read — and if you have books to donate share them for culture’s sake.

Translated by Patricia Ramos for LABeez.org.
Published in November 2010

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