When Adam Bernales and Denice Diaz started Seite Books in a little storefront in East Los Angeles, a lot of people thought their taste in books was too highbrow.
The offerings on the store's first, sparsely stocked shelf when it opened in 2010 included Charles Dickens, "Madame Bovary" and "Don Quixote." It seemed incongruous for a small Rowan Avenue storefront next to a transit station, where the booksellers shared space with the dresses being sold by Diaz's mom.
One of the first customers to wander in, an older Latino man with an embittered disposition, advised them to sell car magazines and car-repair manuals instead.
But Bernales and Diaz, both then in their mid-20s, persisted. A few students from nearby Garfield High School and East Los Angeles Community College started wandering in. There was Fernando, a teenager who wanted to read nothing but Russian novels "because they're the greatest," and a young woman who loved Amiri Baraka and wanted to buy all the African American poets Seite Books had to offer.
Seite Books is the bookstore East Los Angeles didn't know it needed: an oasis of literary culture in a book-starved corner of L.A. that's never had a Dutton's or a Borders or a Barnes & Noble.
"Before they came, the only book you could find in this neighborhood was the Bible," said Rafael Cardenas, a photographer and customer who lives a few blocks away.
For its small but loyal initial customer base, Seite Books filled out its collection of Russian literature, and of poets of color, with Bernales and Diaz going to estate and garage sales hunting for used books. For other customers they tracked down novels by sci-fi writer Ursula K. Le Guin, and classic mystery writers like Dashiell Hammett. They built a sizable collection of Latin American literature too, a category that at Seite Books includes Jorge Luis Borges and Chicano journalist Oscar Zeta Acosta's seminal novel "The Revolt of the Cockroach People."
Now, Seite Books has grown to 20,000 volumes. That makes it tiny compared to most American bookstores, but a veritable Alexandria by the standards of this mostly Spanish- and Spanglish-speaking neighborhood of cactus-filled yards and taco and torta vendors.
"It is, to my knowledge, the only English-language bookstore in East Los Angeles, and the only nonreligious bookstore there," said Edgar Cisneros, a deputy to Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.
To step into Seite Books is to enter a kind of curated gallery of great literature. The focus is on canonical books, used but in good condition. You can find American writers as diverse as Jefferey Eugenides and Danzy Senna, and a wonderful collection of contemporary literature in translation, including Orhan Pamuk and Italo Calvino. The classics include a big, annotated edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Bernales, now 31, and Diaz, 28, were raised in families with roots in Latin America — and in homes with books. Love of books brought them together, and their budding relationship gave birth to the bookstore.
Diaz, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, grew up across the street, on Cesar Chavez Boulevard. A set of bound classics salvaged from a neighbor's trash was the beginning of her childhood book collection. "There was Freud, Dostoevsky, Darwin," she said. "I was bored and I picked them up and started reading them."
But building a personal collection required bus trips out of book-starved East Los Angeles. "I'd save my allowance and go out and buy books."
Bernales is from Chicago, the son of a Peruvian immigrant father and a U.S.-born mother who is a middle-school English teacher. As a boy he helped his mother set up a small lending library for her students, pasting sleeves for check-out cards into books.
As young adults, Bernales and Diaz studied art. When Bernales visited Los Angeles, a mutual friend brought them together. Like many bookish couples, they liked to go on dates to bookstores — but that meant traveling far from East L.A., to place like Vroman's in Pasadena or the Little Old Bookshop in Whittier. (Libros Schmibros, the Eastside's other bookstore and lending library, hadn't opened yet).
When Diaz's mother rented a storefront to sell makeup and women's clothing, she invited the young couple to sell anything they wanted. "We started with part of my book collection, part of hers," Bernales said. "We just put them out. There wasn't even a concept it would be a used bookstore. It was just 'Let's see what the neighborhood is interested in.'"
The name Seite is a product of their erudite aesthetic — it's a German word for "page," or "side." (At first, the books occupied just one side of the storefront.) They opened in January 2010, but at first rarely sold more than 20 books a month. Then Bernales found a big shelf for sale at a used bookstore. "We'll probably have to spend a couple of hundred dollars just to fill it," he told Diaz.
On a road trip to Chicago to visit Bernales' family, they bought used books at swap meets along their route and at the "Junk Jaunt" in Nebraska, billed as "the world's longest garage sale" because it takes place along several highways.
Their customers devoured the growing inventory. Fernando, the Russophile, moved on to a Francophile phase, reading Breton, Camus and Dumas. Another student started with Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets, and after a couple of years moved on to Roberto Bolaño.
"Every customer who's come here has shaped the flavor of the store," Bernales said. "Neither of us had read bell hooks before. But now we have six or seven of her books because people ask for her."
Seite's annual sales grew from scores to thousands, Diaz said. They resisted a few customers insisting they sell books for a dollar or less "because it seems to us you should pay more for a book than for a candy bar." Eventually, they branched into selling new books too.
Over the course of four years each of them has held other odd jobs — and they still split the rent with Diaz's mom. But the couple now is focused entirely on bookselling. They sell books online, and zines and illustrated books by artists whose gritty and urban themes appeal to their clientele, though used books still account for 80% of their sales. And in buying so many used titles they often come across the labels of the bookseller that sold them as new, including several that have vanished from the L.A. landscape.
"Pickwick Books, Midnight Special, Dutton's ... " Bernales said. Those bookstores may have died, but small pieces of them have been reborn, their volumes finding new readers who still squeeze past dresses and makeup in a small storefront in East Los Angeles to search for poetry and plays and tragic Russian novels.
The plan is to keep growing, Bernales and Diaz said, and to perhaps change the store's name, which many in the neighborhood confuse with the Spanish word for "seven," "siete."
"When we chose the name, it wasn't with any marketing in mind," Bernales said. Their store, started on a lark, is now a business with an inventory and "price points," an enterprise built on the hunger of young minds for the ideas and the language contained in great books.