When Lucas Martinez became a revolutionary--it was the late 1960s--certain books explained the world in themes important to a young man who had recently left puberty to find himself at war against the State. There was Neruda's "I Confess I Have Lived" and, later, "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."
Today, Martinez runs the only and possibly last communist bookstore in Los Angeles, Libros Revolucion, which is shelved on downtown's 8th Street, near Angie's Fashions, Tasty Taco and Shoe Rax, and looks an awful lot like a misplaced volume. The books Martinez stocks are mostly in Spanish and, by Cold War standards, subversive--from "Los Fundamentos del Leninismo," by J. Stalin, to "Viva El Marxismo-Leninismo-Maoismo," by no one in particular. But a copy of "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is in layaway; the first book Libros Revolucion sold when it opened in 1987 was written by Albert Einstein; and you can find Mao Tse-tung two shelves above "How the Foal Crossed the Stream" and a dialectical pairing of "Class Struggle, USSR/1917-1923" directly over "Iacocca."
Martinez, explaining the store's contradictions, says, "We think all literature is incendiary and subversive because it concentrates life," and then settles into a chair under a poster reading: "Heighten our Vigilance, Defend the Motherland." He doesn't mean ponies are subversive, but it is easy to get his drift. Two years after Libros Revolucion opened, the Soviet Union fell apart. Not long after, the American Left disintegrated. And so when one enters the bookstore these days, the first question that pops to mind is, "Just how fast is Stalin selling down here on 8th Street?"
"We haven't been a profit-making, whatchamacallit, enterprise since ever," Martinez says. "But, yeah, once you introduce them to the Stalin, or maybe a book like 'Phony Communism Is Dead, Long Live Real Communism!' they come around to it. We still get some Movement people, but more and more, we have to act as guides to a new generation who are much more disillusioned."
As a decidedly nonprofit whatchamacallit enterprise, Libros Revolucion cannot afford to pay its staff, who number under a dozen and are available at odd times. "I'd be happy working here eight hours a day, but this place will never turn a profit," Martinez says. "This stuff needs to be made available." The dying light of dusk glows off a wall of little Red Books behind him.
"Look," Martinez starts into a new thought, "us revolutionaries, the kind of society we imagine is one where people take control and transform it into . . ." But just then the phone rings, and there is a question about tomorrow's hours.