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‘The Best in Books and Hair’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rueben Martinez’s haircuts are never given quickly.

Plan to spend two hours in the chair, joke those who know him, which is only a light trim off the truth.

The loquacious Martinez does tend to get sidetracked.

After all, he’s not only a hairstylist but the owner of an adjoining Latino bookstore and art gallery. As he likes to say, it’s the only combination libreria, galeria, barberia in the United States.

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Maybe the world.

“The best in books and hair,” he boasts on the telephone answering machine for Martinez Books & Art in Santa Ana.

And the phone rings constantly.

If it’s not New York book publicists calling to line up signings for Latino authors, it may be local teachers inviting Martinez to deliver one of his motivational talks to students about staying in school. Or local politicos seeking the longtime Democratic political activist’s support.

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And if Martinez is cutting someone’s hair in the single chair in the back room of his store on Main Street, he’ll pause to answer the phone. Or he’ll stop to chat with customers who drop by to look at the prints and oil paintings by local and international artists, and the array of fiction and nonfiction books in English and espanol.

“It’s never a quick trim with Rueben,” says Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream, a 15-year customer.

Attorney Ruben Smith, who has known Martinez for a decade, likens Martinez’s shop to those storied small-town barbershops “where all the politicians and folks in powerful positions go and the barber knows all the goings-on in town.”

Indeed, some people drop by simply to schmooze. The ebullient Martinez can no more resist talking than a vote-seeking politician can resist pumping the flesh.

“Sometimes I talk too much,” Martinez concedes. “Some [barberia] customers get a kick out of it, and some of them don’t. They say, ‘Rueben, I’ve got to go. Please hurry.’ But they know what to expect.

“I’m usually doing three or four things at a time while I’m cutting hair. I’ve got a lot of energy. I’ve got to burn it, man.”

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Martinez, 55, has been cutting hair for 36 years. He began selling books and artwork in his shop--Orange County’s only bookstore devoted exclusively to Latino books--just three years ago.

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Friends describe him as affable, enthusiastic and fun. But he doesn’t get by on personality alone.

“Rueben is one of the real positive influences in Santa Ana,” Ream says. “He not only knows everybody in town and keeps up with what’s going on--which is always interesting and entertaining--but he’s not just a lot of talk. . . . He really puts the efforts behind his words and ideas.”

Last month, Martinez received the Cesar Chavez Community Service Award from the Hispanic Bar Assn. of Orange County for his “devoted and valuable services rendered to the Hispanic community in Orange County.”

He was recognized by Assemblyman Tom Umberg as Orange County’s small businessman of the year in 1992.

The award Martinez says he values most, though, is the one he received last year from the board of education of the Santa Ana Unified School District: the Giraffe Award, “in recognition of volunteerism and student motivation and the willingness to stick out one’s neck for education.”

Martinez began making classroom visits 22 years ago--when his three children were still in school.

Helping persuade children to stay in school, he says, is his No. 1 priority.

On a recent afternoon, Martinez awaited the arrival of a busload of fifth-grade pupils coming to the shop as a reward for their work in a book-reading program.

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He was, meanwhile, busy jotting down notes for a speech he would deliver that evening to a group of Orange County Latino social workers--a talk about his experiences in the schools and the need for getting more people involved in working to keep kids in school.

That weekend he would speak at a PTA conference in Burbank, where he would advise participants about Latino books they could purchase for their schools.

Martinez’s political activism dates from 1960, when he was 20 and campaigned for John F. Kennedy’s presidential run.

“I found out my heart was in a political party that was a party of the people, for the people,” he says.

Martinez has served as an executive board member of the California Democratic Party, treasurer of the Orange County Democratic Party and has twice been a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

In the ‘60s, he helped organize pickets to support Cesar Chavez’s grape boycott; in the ‘90s, he has become a vocal opponent of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration initiative.

During Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, Martinez was Orange County chairman of Adelante Con Clinton (Onward with Clinton), an effort to generate Latino votes.

And sometimes his politics and barbering have crossed paths: He cut former Gov. Jerry Brown’s hair during a campaign stop in Santa Ana in the ‘70s.

Martinez has held numerous political fund-raisers in his shop and continues to walk precincts for various Democratic candidates.

This year, however, he plans to sit out Clinton’s reelection campaign.

It’s not that he doesn’t still support the president; he’s just got too much else going on right now.

Martinez recently moved his store to a new location, a 2,800-square-foot space on the ground floor of a law office building on Main Street. It’s so big, he jokes, that its bathroom is larger than his entire previous store.

Martinez’s new landlord, attorney Frank Barbero, a longtime friend and barbershop customer, gave him a lease offer he couldn’t refuse. But it was also time, Martinez says, to try to expand his book business.

A grand opening is planned for the new shop in May; artists and authors will attend.

But there’s a lot to get done. Like a paint job. Friends have offered to take part in a “painting party” to enliven the shop’s walls.

Martinez says he couldn’t make it as a bookseller without the support and advice of his friends, and he’s got a lot of those.

He even had help hand-carrying his modest stock of 1,000 books from the old store to the new one: 20 young volunteer members of the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, where Martinez frequently takes his stay-in-school message.

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Martinez’s enthusiasm is contagious. It’s for people like him that the exclamation point was invented.

Here he is recounting his talk the day before to a senior English class at Saddleback High School in Santa Ana:

“It was so great! And we discussed, you name it: literature and the arts, some politics, education, the power of students. What I told them is we are all born to be winners! So you have to start thinking, talking and acting like winners! The professor says, ‘Rueben! Rueben! Rueben! You’re here, why don’t you just talk to my junior class too!’ ”

So he did.

Martinez averages about one school visit a week. At Cesar Chavez High School in Santa Ana, where he is one of the school’s “business partners,” teacher Delia Apodaca was so impressed the first time Martinez spoke to one of her business computer classes last year that she found herself writing her first fan letter.

“He’s so inspirational,” she says. “The students love him. He treats them like his own kids. He goes over and he hugs them and he calls them ‘mijito,’ which means my little son or ‘mija,’ my daughter. They like that, and he’s funny and very outgoing. The fact that he’s Hispanic just motivates the kids to do even better.

“They really relate to where he came from and what he’s done with his life.”

Martinez is delighted when students who have heard him speak come to the bookstore on their own: “They come to see what they’ve been hearing. I tell them ‘You’re in your house--es su casa--go ahead and look.’ They find books they can relate to.”

*

One common refrain in Martinez’s talks to students is to ask them if they wonder:

“Do you ever wonder what will happen if you stay in school?

“Do you ever wonder what will happen if you don’t stay in school?”

As a kid, Martinez says, he always wondered, “What’s on other side of the mountain?”

The mountain was the one he saw from his modest house in the tiny central Arizona mining town of Miami, population 3,000 in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Smoke from two towering smelter smokestacks in the middle of town discolored the cars, houses and trees. It was the kind of place where, he jokes, “if you painted your house, you were too good for everybody else.”

Martinez’s parents were born in Mexico. His father worked in a copper mine; his mother stayed home to take care of the eight children.

His hometown had good schools, Martinez says, but the only job opportunities were in the company store, at a gas station or in the mines.

Within a month of graduating from high school in 1957, the 17-year-old Martinez left Miami.

“There was no future there. I had to go out and see if there was anything on the other side of that mountain.”

He and two friends piled into a ’49 Ford and headed to California. And, he says, “I’ve been here ever since. California has been very good to me.”

Settling in East Los Angeles, he landed a job as a box boy in a supermarket, where he worked his way up to the produce department.

Married at 19, he got a job working nights as an overhead crane operator for Bethlehem Steel; days he attended barber college.

Martinez and his wife--who divorced after 12 years of marriage--had three children. All three, he proudly says, went on to graduate from college.

During the ‘60s, while cutting hair on the side, he worked a variety of jobs, including waiter. In 1974, after barbering full time for two years, Martinez moved to Santa Ana, where he opened a hairstyling salon.

The 1993 decision to begin selling books was prompted by customers coming into his shop and complaining that they couldn’t find copies of Latino books in mainstream bookstores.

Diana Hernandez of Riverside, a former surgical technician and a good friend of Martinez’s, thought they should do something about it. At her suggestion, she and Martinez went into business together, creating what they called Martinez-Hernandez Bookcase in the waiting room of Martinez’s shop.

From four books displayed on a counter top, the stock grew to fill five bookshelves and a table in the middle of the room. (Hernandez grew tired of commuting from Riverside, Martinez says, and their partnership ended after the first year.)

The modest bookstore on 3rd Street quickly became a Latino literary oasis.

From the start, the renamed Martinez Books & Art attracted well-known Latino authors such as Sandra Cisneros and Rudolfo Anaya, whose book signings drew lines of fans that extended down the block. For a 1993 signing by Oceanside author Victor Villasen~or, the police blocked off 3rd Street between Broadway and Sycamore Street to accommodate the crowd.

Authors have come to learn that doing a signing at Martinez Books & Art also means they’ll be asked to speak at Santa Ana schools. Martinez makes the arrangements. A signing by author Luis Rodriguez in January included talks to students at four high schools.

*

Martinez, who cuts hair by appointment, continues to make the bulk of his income from his barberia. But in less than four years, he has developed a national reputation as a seller of Latino books.

He’s on the advisory board of Penguin Ediciones, Penguin’s Spanish-language division, and in May he will fly to New York for an advisory board meeting to discuss title selections, bilingual books and children’s literature.

He’ll be staying over an extra day on that trip.

A Brooklyn elementary-school teacher who heard about him from a friend in California has invited him to speak to her fifth-grade class. Martinez says he’ll talk to the class of Puerto Rican and Chinese students about Mexican American culture. And, of course, he’ll include his stay-in-school message.

Martinez has twice been invited to speak at the American Booksellers Assn.'s national convention, the first time only six months after he began selling books.

The theme of that talk, he says, was how independent bookstores can stay in business while competing against the big chains.

He started off talking about how, when he opened his hairstyling salon two decades ago, he was told there are three important ingredients to having a successful business: location, location, location.

“That’s not necessarily true today,” he told fellow booksellers, “because if you have a very good location, one of those big monster superstores is going to open up right across from you and you’ll barely make enough to pay the month’s rent. So what you need nowadays are three very important things to survive:

“No. 1, you need emotion. No. 2, you need emotion. And No. 3, you need lots of emotion!”

Martinez grins.

“That’s how I ended up my talk. And everybody laughed. But it’s true! You have to put a lot of emotion in everything that you do!”

Something Martinez has no problem doing.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Rueben Martinez

Background: Age 55. Born in Miami, Ariz.; moved to East Los Angeles in 1957; has lived in Santa Ana since 1974. Divorced, with three children and four grandchildren.

Interests: Politics, bicycling “some roller-blading” and running--he’s competed in five marathons, including those in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.

On why he talks to students about staying in school: “If you can keep one student from dropping out of school, it’s rewarding. What I really encourage students to do is read and respect themselves and each other. That’s my satisfaction, when these students listen to each other, respect each other and work together.”

On why he is a political and community activist: “You’re here; you have to do something. I’ve always been this way. Some of my friends say I’m all over the place, they wonder how I get things done. I’m used to it. As far as being involved, it’s just like getting a driver’s license. It’s a privilege to drive. It’s an honor to be active, to do things. I chose a long time ago to be a giver rather than a taker.”


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