It’s getting a little harder for Rueben Martinez to cut hair these days.
Sure, customers still come to his Santa Ana barbershop, Hacienda Hair, for a trim. And people still drop by to get their hair dyed. But more and more of them come in looking for a good book.
In the modest shop on 3rd Street, there are no dog-eared issues of People or Field & Stream. Instead, customers find Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Sandra Cisneros’ “The House on Mango Street” and dozens of other works by Latino authors.
Chicano texts and children’s books are clustered on shelves between black-haired dolls and dried chiles. And if a customer asks for a book Martinez doesn’t have on hand, he is happy to hunt it down.
“The little bookstore is a dream come true,” said Enriqueta Ramos, a professor of Chicano studies and Spanish at Cypress College. “The books are absolutely the latest.”
It all started last summer, when Martinez and his business partner, Diana Hernandez, were bemoaning Orange County’s lack of bookstores that stocked works by Latino authors. So they bought three wooden bookshelves, lined them with hardcovers and paperbacks, and hung a sign in the downtown barbershop window that read “Martinez-Hernandez Hispanic Bookcase.”
Their new venture quickly caught on. When Victor Villasenor, a noted Oceanside author, visited the salon for a book signing in October, more than 300 people lined up outside.
The selection of books in Spanish and English has drawn literature lovers from across Orange County and Los Angeles to Hacienda Hair.
“I can’t keep anything of (Mexican artist) Frida Kahlo in stock. They just snap it up,” the 53-year-old Martinez said, waving his hand with his usual frantic ebullience. He turned to look at another book and clutched it to his chest.
“Look at this dictionary, I like it so much I don’t want to sell it!” he said.
More books are on the way, as well as plans for signings by popular authors. Writer Mary Helen Ponce will be there Saturday. Hernandez and Martinez also have coordinated a book signing by Luis Valdez of “Zoot Suit” fame next April at the nearby Bowers Museum.
The success of the store during tough economic times is a demonstration of Latinos’ economic presence in Orange County, where 23% of the population trace their roots to Latin America. Santa Ana, in particular, has a thriving Latino community.
“More than anything else, it’s to teach our people to read more,” Martinez said of the bookstore. “We have hundreds and hundreds of authors out there who will keep us heading in the right direction.”
Most every afternoon, customers pop into the salon to chat and hear the latest chisme , or gossip. And if anyone would know the latest gossip, it’s the down-to-earth Martinez.
He has been cutting hair in downtown Santa Ana for almost 20 years, and though he is busy sitting on the boards of several nonprofit groups, he still gives several haircuts a day. He is known for being a staunch Democrat and often trims the locks of the political elite. Dozens of politicians, from city council members to governors, have sat in his black leather chairs.
Born and raised in Arizona, Martinez moved to Los Angeles’ Eastside and worked in hair salons after high school. He moved to Orange County in 1974.
Martinez traces his education-oriented philosophy to the Chicano movement of the 1960s. His 1990s version, however, takes a decidedly conciliatory approach. He talks about bringing people of all cultures together and sees his bookstore as a way to do it.
“The wheels have turned for a long time, now they’re going into second and third gear,” Martinez said of the Chicano movement. “What keeps me motivated is the young people out there who keep trying to improve themselves.”
He has teamed with Hernandez, 55, a former surgical technician from Riverside, who came up with the idea for the bookstore.
After she read a positive review of “Rain of Gold,” she went out to search for the book this year. But she could not find the Latino epic in any mainstream bookstore. “When I finally found it and read it, I thought, why is this so hard to find?”
She talked to Martinez about it and found in him a willing partner to take a risk.
Hernandez is the bookworm of the shop; devouring novels is her passion. She is also the business brains of the venture, coming up with ideas for new books, calendars and posters.
She drives to the salon twice weekly to order books--usually only two to six copies of a title at a time--knowing space and a tight budget limit the shop’s wish list.
Sometimes, Martinez sells books right out of the box while he’s unpacking a shipment. Parting with the unread works can be frustrating. A customer recently stopped by and wanted to buy a brand new book, “but I asked her if she could come back later to get it, because I wanted to take a look at it before I sold it,” Martinez said, laughing.
One customer, Frank Luna, a Santa Ana Parks and Recreation Department supervisor, stopped by recently to talk about a book he had read.
Luna and Martinez moved quickly and effortlessly between English and Spanish, jumping from Mexican American war heroes to cultural pride to teen-agers.
Luna planned to attend a weekend book signing by author Jose Antonio Burciaga, and hoped Latino teen-agers would see Burciaga and other authors as role models. “That’s what we need to slow down the gangs,” Luna said.
He left with a quick “ Andale, pues ,” a standard goodby, but not before ordering three books.
Friends such as Luna, who has sent more than a handful of customers to the store, are at the heart of the business. Luna recently bought Ruben Navarrette Jr.'s “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano” as a gift for a co-worker’s son--a Santa Ana teen-ager who is a freshman at Harvard University.
Martinez was so touched by the gesture that he got Navarrette to sign the book for the youth. “I understand,” Navarrette wrote. “ Adelante, y buena suerte "--Go forward and good luck.
The teen-ager’s father also bought a Mexican cookbook for his son and sent it to Massachusetts. “He said they don’t have good Mexican food at Harvard,” Martinez said.
Other visitors to the shop are bilingual Latinos who buy Spanish-language books to improve their language skills; some are lured in by novels displayed in the window.
Ninfa Duran, a librarian in Santa Ana’s public library system, has visited the store several times. She calls it a “fresh breeze,” and says that newcomers to the country can use Latin American literature to retain their language and culture while learning about their new homeland.
Ramos, the Cypress College professor, said the bookstore encourages people to read and compare not only Latino authors, but American writers and others.
Because the store is so close to her Santa Ana home, Ramos can now avoid the treks she once made to UCLA or Cal State Northridge to buy hard-to-find books. She lauded the store’s folksy atmosphere, and believes that the shop could be a social and educational hub if expanded.
The store has a diverse clientele, and almost a third of the shoppers are non-Latino, Hernandez said.
Students at local colleges come in to buy books that explore their cultural roots. They also want to read about the Chicano movement.
“Take, for example, a book like ‘Zoot Suit,’ ” he said, scouring the shelves for it. “Oops, we don’t have any copies right now. Well, anyway, 20-year-olds are coming in and buying ‘Zoot Suit.’
Martinez and Hernandez started the bookstore with only $2,000 and 25 books. They plow their profits back into new books and, for now, intend to keep the place small.
“One of these days when we get serious,” Martinez said, “we’ll alphabetize the books.”