Market for Latino Books Growing : Redlands Firm Meets Demand for Out-of-Print Works

Times Staff Writer

George Elmendorf is a scruffy, chain-smoking former union organizer and vagabond who likes his Stravinsky played loud.

Alphonso J. Vijil is an impeccably groomed, shy book collector with a background in economics and an aversion to cigarette smoke.

Together, they share office space in a converted warehouse nestled among lumber yards, sheet metal factories and animal feed stores near the commercial district here.

It is an unlikely place for one of the nation’s largest sellers of out-of-print Latin American books. But with regular customers such as the Library of Congress and the U.S. State Department, the odd couple at Libros Latinos have few complaints.


“Latin American culture is on a roll right now,” said Elmendorf, 47, who sold the business in 1983 to Vijil, a native of Nicaragua and collector of Nicaraguan books.

While Vijil, 28, minds the store, Elmendorf is putting finishing touches on the first volume of a 10-year project--a complete bibliography of Latin American authors from 1800 to 1978.

Meanwhile, the political strife in Central America and a growing appreciation for Latin American writers, Vijil said, have made for good business.

Many of the scholars, libraries and government agencies that Vijil caters to are clamoring for political manifestoes as well as books, and for authors ranging from the 16th-Century Mexican poet and nun Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz to Nicaragua’s vice president, novelist Sergio Ramirez.


“Our hottest books are from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala,” said Vijil, whose mail-order business has 20,000 volumes in stock and receives requests for 10,000 different titles a year.

Not Available Elsewhere

To meet the growing demand, Vijil and Elmendorf travel frequently throughout Latin America, scouring libraries, bookstores and private collections in search of rare books, new and old.

The volumes offered in the Libros Latinos catalogue cannot be found at better-known retail operations or even university bookstores.


“We deal in stuff like this,” said Vijil, taking a tattered, 300-year-old religious treatise from Spain off a shelf. “It talks about matrimony and sins--it’s a law book primarily.” The price: $350.

Nearby was a 4,000-volume library bought in September from a former Mexican government official for $15,000. “A lot of this material deals with the Mexican economy in the 1930s and 1940s,” he said.

He added that “we also have a lot of documents and census reports that only a university would be interested in--or the government.”

Such books may seem drier than Baja California sand to most book fanciers. But for scholars, they can contain literary gold.


“Libros Latinos is one of our most useful sources in the United States for Latin American materials,” said Peter de la Garza, coordinator of the Hispanic Acquisitions Program for the Library of Congress. That is partly because “it offers both pro- and anti-government materials from a variety of countries.”

As for Vijil and Elmendorf, well, they seem like unlikely business associates.

“George is eupeptic--he has animation and drive,” De la Garza said. “Al is one of the most relaxed, laid-back people I’ve ever known.”

“Al’s completely different than I am,” agreed Elmendorf, wearing his usual office garb--blue jeans and work shirt. Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” blared from a stereo. The walls were covered with framed examples of Latin American art and literature.


Shelf space on the far side of his office was reserved for his upcoming bibliography, the first volume of which is scheduled for publication in 1986 by the University of Texas (Austin) Press.

Elmendorf obtained a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to help pay for the project. Cataloguing is being done with the aid of computers at UCLA. The task of finding the books for his tome, which is intended to fill gaps in existing bibliographies, is Elmendorf’s alone.

“It is difficult, dusty, dirty work that George is doing,” said John Hebert, assistant chief of the Hispanic division of the Library of Congress. “He has to go out and dig for the stuff. Very few people are willing to do that kind of work today.”

But then, Elmendorf doesn’t do anything halfway.


Went Into Business in ’76

As a young man, he kicked around Latin America for years before joining Accion, a privately sponsored international volunteer help group, in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, he worked as a “factory gate leafleteer” and union organizer in Athens, Ga.

In 1976, Elmendorf, who received a degree in Latin American history from San Francisco State University, went into the Latin American book business by teaming up with Howard Karno, founder of Libros Latinos. Two years later, Elmendorf bought him out.

“I’m 100% First Amendment,” Elmendorf said with a laugh. “I’ve sold books from the most scurrilous character assassinations to 100% promulgation by guerrilla groups.”


Karno now operates a similar enterprise called Howard Karno Books of Santa Monica and is one of Vijil’s few rivals in the small but highly competitive industry.

“Throughout the Hispanic world there are about 40,000 titles issued each year,” Karno said. “That’s an enormous volume of books, and libraries are trying to keep up with it.”

The stress and strain of their separate endeavors, however, haven’t hurt relations between Vijil and Elmendorf.

“George is impatient, overbearing and arrogant to just about everybody but me,” Vijil said, in soft low tones.


“I don’t know why he excepted himself,” Elmendorf said.