Is story ending for O.C. cultural icon?

Times Staff Writer

When Rueben Martinez set up his bookshop in an old Santa Ana furniture store a decade ago, he bargained the landlord down to half-price rent, saying he sold books, not diamonds.

But despite its renown as one of the nation's largest Latino-themed bookstores, Libreria Martinez, owned by the barber-turned-MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" winner, may be forced to close by year's end.

Sales are down 50% from a year ago and bills are piling up. A new landlord, the Orange County High School of the Arts, which wants to use the store for classrooms, has given Martinez a year to find a new location.

"I knew I was never going to get rich selling books," Martinez said. "But the crowds are not what they used to be."

The store that began as a shelf in Martinez's barbershop in 1993 has grown into a local institution with an international draw, bringing in hundreds of authors, such as literary giants Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez and Carlos Fuentes and high-profile speakers, including Nobel Peace Prize-winning Costa Rica President Oscar Arias.

Anchored by Martinez's mission -- to get people of all ages to read, in English or Spanish -- the store has prospered as a community center, holding English and music classes, and where residents can attend a poetry reading or pick up a book or magazine.

A sign outside commands "¡Todos a Leer!" -- Let's Read, Everyone!

They may be reading, but lately they're not buying enough.

Martinez's troubles mirror those familiar to nearly every independent bookshop: rising rent, fewer people buying books, and competition from online and big-box retailers that can offer discounts.

The Brentwood literary landmark Dutton's closed last month. Another Latino bookstore, Tia Chucha's in the San Fernando Valley, last year had to move after the landlord tripled the rent and replaced it with a laundromat.

"We don't have bookstores in most neighborhoods in the L.A. area," said owner Luis Rodriguez. "Everybody talks about how literacy is so important, so there's got to be ways to help with rent subsidies."

Martinez's store, a single-story red tile-roof building with floor-to-ceiling glass windows, is on downtown Santa Ana's Main Street, surrounded by office buildings. An alley separates the shop from its children's section in a building next door. Cars whiz by, but there is little foot traffic.

Santa Ana, the center of Orange County's Spanish-speaking immigrant community, is an area where some might see limited economic opportunity.

Martinez saw a platform to promote reading to a young and growing population.

A barber by training, Martinez garnered national attention when the MacArthur Foundation in 2004 awarded him a $500,000 fellowship for promoting literacy. The money, spread out over five years and not restricted in its use, has gone to start a nonprofit that offers after-school classes and tutoring. He has used some of the grant to pay the store's bills.

Martinez, 68, with thick, graying hair, a robust mustache and frameless glasses, holds the heavy glass door for customers and picks up trash on the sidewalk outside.

On a recent afternoon, he dug through crowded shelves with both hands, offering up titles of self-help books, Danielle Steel novels, Bibles and Latin American poetry. A John Grisham novel, translated into Spanish, sits next to English translations of essays by Mexican intellectuals.

He picks up "Don Quixote." "This book was written 400 years ago," he said. "It's dead until you open it up."

His usually animated voice lowers when asked about the prospect of closing.

Months ago his accountant gave him a dire forecast: The store would have to close in three to six months if sales don't pick up dramatically.

After keeping it to himself for months, a distressed Martinez last month confessed his predicament to a longtime customer, who alerted the Spanish-language media.

The news has alarmed and disheartened many of the city's residents and leaders.

"It's not just a business, it's a place that opens doors for young people to find literature that speaks to them," said Santa Ana Councilman Sal Tinajero. "We need to preserve this gem that we have in our city."

Leila Mozaffari, director of the Orange County Small Business Development Center, is on an informal committee of community business leaders who have rallied around Martinez to give guidance to try to save his store.

"He's been known as a pillar of the community. So many people have gone to him for help," she said. "He might have thought that he was letting everybody down if he was needing some assistance."

The declining revenue is already taking its toll.

For lack of funds, Martinez's booth was absent from the Los Angeles Times Festival of Book and last year's Feria del Libro. He usually attends those book fairs.

Daniel Parra, general manager of Giron Books, a Chicago distributor of books in Spanish, said Martinez used to be one of his biggest customers, placing new orders nearly every week. Now he goes months without ordering.

"To be honest, at some point I don't know if Martinez can continue as a bookstore," Parra said. "He might have to become some other kind of cultural organization."

Martinez said he was determined not to lay off any of his eight employees in Santa Ana or at his satellite store in Lynwood, which is also suffering.

He has been paying rent from his personal savings and maintaining a hectic schedule of speaking engagements at colleges and universities, using the proceeds to sustain the stores. The stress of losing money, he said, has given him a literal pain in the neck.

Now that Martinez's plight is public, people are taking notice. Customers he hasn't seen in more than a year are stopping by, apologetically making purchases. One woman sent a check for $50. "From a well-wisher. I'd hate to see you go under," she wrote.

San Antonio-based author Sandra Cisneros, a friend and fellow MacArthur grant winner, hopes to make a special appearance to support the store.

"It's a literary center for the Latino community," Cisneros said. "Any writer will tell you they'll do anything for this bookstore."

City officials, calling the prospect of the store closing a "red flag," are instructing the public library to buy more of its Spanish-language books from Martinez.

"The bookstore is part of my family. The old books are like my grandparents," Martinez said, holding a barbering textbook published the year he was born.

In the back office of the bookstore, Martinez sits in a vintage steel-and-leather barber's chair, a gift from an admirer to remind him of his 30 years of cutting hair. Books are stacked on a couch, and the walls are neatly lined with awards and honorary diplomas.

"To close the store, you'll have to tear my heart out," he said.

"Because I won't let go."

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tony.barboza@latimes.com

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