At Huntington Park High School, the closest bookstore is only a corridor away.
Commonplace at colleges and universities, campus bookstores are a rarity at high schools. But Huntington Park High has a bookshop of its own, a real bookstore, devoid of pennants and other school merchandise, in which the written word is the only thing for sale.
B. Dalton it ain’t. The school’s bookstore offers only a few hundred titles. Its hours are limited: It opens for half an hour before school, during the morning break, during lunch and for half an hour after school. Students built the store’s counter, shelves and display case in wood shop. But modest as the facility is, it does what all successful bookstores do. It allows browsers to sample the best thinking of writers as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Judy Blume. It allows patrons to blast out of the now into a universe of other possibilities.
A Real Convenience
Housed in a former administrative office, the bookstore opened in 1984. According to founder Charles R. Baskett, the school’s reading specialist and testing coordinator, the shop is a real convenience for the school’s 4,000 students.
“They would really have to look hard to find a bookstore” in the area, Baskett said. “And if they don’t have wheels, that’s hard to do.”
The high school bookstore stocks everything from Shakespeare’s poetry and plays to the teen-age romance series “Sweet Valley High.” Books for sale include such classics as Honore de Balzac’s “Pere Goriot” and Samuel Butler’s “The Way of All Flesh,” and Steve Sohmer’s timely political thriller, “Favorite Son.”
Once a month, Baskett visits a Westside book wholesaler and replenishes the store’s stock of paperbacks and magazines. He also tries to fill any special orders students give him or drop into the store’s suggestion box.
The school gets a 30% discount from the wholesaler on most books. A 16% discount is passed on to the students, although some titles, such as the popular Barron’s SAT study guide, are reduced 25%. The store also sells used books, most of which are donated by teachers or the community, for 25 cents.
Baskett estimates that the store, which makes a modest profit, has sold at least 5,000 books and magazines since its inception. All the money goes to the school’s student association, which pays the wholesaler and other creditors.
Reference Books Popular
Baskett said the store’s biggest sellers are reference books, especially Spanish-English dictionaries, not surprising given that 97% of the student body is Latino.
Half a dozen campus suspense buffs regularly buy mystery titles, but science fiction does not sell well, for reasons Baskett can’t fathom. Robert Ludlum is popular. Stephen King is not. Humor, including Mad magazine, moves well, but Spanish-language versions of English classics have not been brisk sellers. Paperbacks always outsell hardbacks. “Hardback books are intimidating to many students,” Baskett said. “They’ll buy anything in paperback first.”
During a recent lunch break, Baskett was staffing the store when two students dropped in to browse and talk books. A former English teacher, Baskett recommended Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” to 17-year-old Diana Gutierrez, who recently read “The Grapes of Wrath,” “A Separate Peace” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She leafed through the Wilde and Judith Guest’s “Ordinary People,” but left without making a purchase. “I usually check books out of the library,” she said.
Sam Nuno, 18, also stopped by, as he does almost every day. Nuno, who works in the school library, is a voracious reader, especially of science fiction (he is an Isaac Asimov devotee). Nuno apologized for reading only a book or two a day. “I think it should be more, but I don’t have time,” he said.
Nuno, too, left empty-handed. But while the bookshop isn’t setting any sales records, it has its moments. “Last year, a senior came in and bought 17 Shakespeare plays,” Baskett recalled.
As Baskett explained, the store is part of a schoolwide commitment to reading, especially important at Huntington Park since so many students learned English as a second language.
The same year the bookstore opened, the school also instituted SQUIRT, or Student Quiet Uninterrupted Individual Reading Time. Every student is expected to read silently for 15 minutes each morning while attendance is being taken. If students have nothing else to read, they can pick up a used magazine free from the bookstore.
Students who read regularly each morning receive one academic credit for their effort. “Believe it or not, there have been a couple of seniors who really needed that credit to graduate,” Baskett said.
About 80% of the students read each day, Baskett estimates.
Neither SQUIRT nor a bookstore on the premises has caused Huntington Park’s standardized test scores to soar. Last year, Huntington Park seniors scored near the bottom of seniors statewide on the California Assessment Program reading test. Their average score was 160, on a scale that ran from a low of 100 to a high of 400; the statewide average is 250.
But Baskett and other school staff are confident that both SQUIRT and the bookstore encourage students to acquire the habit of reading, far more important in the long run than any score on a standardized test.
In the hands of students, books are beneficent time bombs. The benefits, Baskett said, “may only show up after they get out of school.”