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South of the Borders

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Growing up in his native Cuba, Alexis Torres resorted to putting fake covers on books so he could read literature that wasn’t government-approved.

“When I was a teenager, you could definitely get arrested” for reading “enemy propaganda” like Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa’s works, Torres said. But that didn’t stop him from reading as many books as he could get his hands on.

Torres’ fascination with books led him to pass up a lucrative law career to open a Spanish-language bookstore. A month after the Loyola Marymount University graduate passed the bar exam in 1996, he opened Libreria Europa America on South Gate’s Tweedy Mile. He has no regrets.

Libreria Europa America is one of many Spanish-language bookstores in the Los Angeles area that are growing in popularity even as many other independent booksellers struggle to survive.

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Faced with fierce competition from superstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, “stores that can find a niche, like foreign-language bookstores, tend to do better,” said Len Vlahos of the American Booksellers Assn., which represents 3,500 independent stores nationwide.

Stores that sell books in Spanish, like many other businesses in Southern California, are profiting from the demands of the burgeoning Latino population.

The United States is the fifth-largest market in the world for books in Spanish, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

“Publishers in Mexico City are calling because they want to bring their authors to bookstores in California,” said Reuben Martinez of Martinez Books in Santa Ana. “And they aren’t going to go to Barnes & Noble. They’re going to go where they speak Spanish.”

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Major bookstores are also increasing their offerings in Spanish, but the competition doesn’t faze the smaller store owners. Customers still tend to look to the foreign-language bookstores to fill their needs.

“It’s good that they [the chains] are starting to have books in Spanish, because it means there’s a demand,” Torres said. “But everything they have, we have, plus 10 times more.”

Torres chose South Gate after his research indicated that the heavily Latino communities of South Gate, Maywood, Downey, Bell and Huntington Park had few literary resources in Spanish.

In 18 months in business, Torres said he has gone from $8,000 in monthly sales to $16,000. That may not represent a profit, he said, but it covers his costs, and that is all that matters to him right now.

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“We’re happy for him,” said Teresa Ayala Forsberg of Libreria Azteca, on Adams Boulevard near USC, revealing the camaraderie that exists among these bookstore owners. They often refer customers to each other. They don’t need to compete, they say, because each has his or her own area of expertise.

“The sun shines for all of us,” said Ayala Forsberg, quoting her father, Antonio Ayala, the bookstore’s founder. Libreria Azteca, specializing in occult and self-help books, doesn’t have to worry. The 15-year-old store posted a 30% revenue increase in 1997, said Ayala Forsberg, reaching $100,000 in sales.

Not to be left out, Sears, Roebuck & Co. has jumped on the bandwagon. At its Boyle Heights location, Sears has opened its first Book Center, also known as the Libreria Familiar, to cater to a primarily Latino clientele.

The idea for the book concession came from its owners, twin brothers Ruben and Richard Reinoso, who run a longtime family book-distribution business.

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“We wanted to find a company that caters to the Latino community and a good location,” said Ruben Reinoso.

The Reinosos opened the small bookstore at Sears last July. Less than a year later, sales have reached about $15,000 a month. Most books sold are in Spanish, although they do have titles in English.

“It’s been a resounding success,” said store manager Joe Diaz. “They are doing 50% better than projected.” Sears has already agreed to expand the bookstore.

Many of these bookstores received exposure at the city’s first annual Latino Book, Cultural and Travel Festival last September at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

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Organizers had expected about 7,000 people. Nearly 20,000 attended.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” said Bernard Hamel, owner of Bernard Hamel Spanish Books (also known as Libreria Buenos Aires) on the Westside, and a wholesale distributor to other bookstores.

Hamel estimates that 40 to 50 locations in the Los Angeles area are selling books in Spanish. That includes newsstands, Spanish-language music stores and Christian bookstores, as well as Latino bookstores.

Perhaps the best places to find classic literature in Spanish are two well-established bookstores, Hamel and the Spanish & European Bookstore. While sales growth is steady at both stores, they continue to expand their offerings, seeking to attract a larger clientele.

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In addition to its role as bookseller and distributor, the Hamel family recently delved into the publishing business. The Hamels have published five books in Spanish, including compendiums of idiomatic expressions in Mexico and Latin America.

Hamel is planning to add weekly cultural evenings where people can chat about literature, like they do in the cafes of his wife’s native Argentina.

Hamel Spanish Books is perhaps the oldest of the Spanish-language bookstores. It opened 30 years ago on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. The Hamels then relocated to Westwood and, finally, in 1987, settled at their current Westside location. Their sales are stable at $500,000 to $600,000 a year.

At the Spanish & European Bookstore, a longtime fixture at Vermont and Wilshire, new owners Jackie Quiroga and Patricia Leou, both from Bolivia, have been waging an uphill battle to get sales back up to levels enjoyed by the previous owner.

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Sales are about $500,000 a year and climbing. But with four employees and a high overhead, that’s not enough, said Quiroga, who took over the large Mid-City location in September 1996. Former owner Ephrem Compte highly publicized his planned closure because he wanted to get rid of his inventory, she said. “That hurt us a lot.”

Many of these stores rely heavily on sales to schools and libraries. And teachers are their best individual customers.

For those reasons, children’s books have proven to be among the biggest sellers.

After children’s books, the greatest number of requests is for self-improvement books, such as those by popular Mexican author Carlos Cuauhtemoc Sanchez, or translations of Anthony Robbins and Deepak Chopra.

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Latino-themed literature from U.S.-born authors, mostly in English, is also a growing field of interest. Martinez Books in Santa Ana and Cultura Latina in Long Beach specialize in the genre. Because the writers are more accessible, author readings and book signings are common at both locations. As a result, they are popular gathering places, filling the void left by Arroyo Books, perhaps the only local Latino bookstore to close in recent years.

For Arroyo owner Philip Gillette, it wasn’t sales that pushed him to close his popular Highland Park store last year. He had moved into a former cafe in hopes of adding a coffeehouse, but renovations required to bring it up to code proved too expensive. However, he intends to reopen elsewhere.


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