If David Kipen's knowledge of literature is encyclopedic, his business methods might be described as casually bohemian.
As sole proprietor of Libros Schmibros, a used bookstore and free lending library in Boyle Heights, Kipen cares more about helping readers broaden their literary horizons than about when, or whether, his books get returned.
Kipen lends books for free and for lengths of time that vary according to the number of pages and degree of difficulty. "It doesn't make sense to lend 'Gravity's Rainbow' for the same time that you lend out 'Of Mice and Men,' " he said.
If a customer wants to buy a book, Kipen charges $1 or $1.50, or at most half the list price if it's a high-quality first edition. He appears unfazed by the thought that a few people have walked out of Libros Schmibros carrying gems at fire-sale prices.
"These are books that had been in captivity, in a storage kit in Agoura Hills, in some cases getting nibbled on by termites," said Kipen. "And I wanted to let 'em out and walk around a little, to go into the neighborhood and maybe bring back stories."
Until January, the native Angeleno was a full-time employee of Uncle Sam. As director of the National Endowment for the Arts' National Reading Initiatives, Kipen spearheaded the heavily publicized Big Read project. Prompted by alarm over Americans' dismal reading habits, the Big Read helped organize communities to read and discuss a single book.
It grew into the largest government literary endeavor since the New Deal Federal Writers' Project, with programs in more than 800 cities and partnerships with more than 25,000 local organizations. Kipen crisscrossed the country proselytizing about the soul-expanding powers of "Fahrenheit 451," "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "The Maltese Falcon."
His ex-boss, the poet and former NEA chairman Dana Gioia, said Kipen possesses "a certain genius" for imparting his love of reading to others.
With the change in presidential administrations in 2009, the Big Read's budget got chopped and Kipen lost his job. Now he's back in his hometown, continuing his crusade by other means, pressing books into people's hands with a project that artfully mixes calculation and caprice.
"It was always a quixotic idea," said Kipen, 47, a graduate of Beverly Hills High and Yale, who initially stocked his new venture with his personal library of several thousand volumes. "It just seemed like the barriers to entry for a library and a book-lending business would never be lower.
"What's not to like is that my bank account is going down and down and down," Kipen said while guiding a visitor around his store, a 1,400-square-foot labyrinth of old movie posters, ergonomically incorrect chairs and roughly 7,000 books, many of them stuffed into cases snapped up from defunct establishments such as Acres of Books, the legendary Long Beach used-book store. "What's to like is that people in the neighborhood really seem to appreciate this."
In its few weeks of existence, Libros Schmibros has become a humming salon of activity and a fixture of Boyle Heights' blossoming 1st Street arts district. The corridor, whose development was partially spurred by the opening of the Gold Line rail extension, includes the Casa 0101 Theater and Corazón del Pueblo, an arts, education and social-action collective across the street from Kipen.
Casa 0101's owner, the playwright and screenwriter Josefina Lopez, teaches a weekly screenwriting workshop at Libros Schmibros. A speakers' series featuring local authors has approached Kipen about using his premises to host an after-lecture party.
Kipen likes to joke that he was "the first Jew in decades" to move back into Boyle Heights. The store's name — "libros" is Spanish for books, "schmibros" is a kind of neo-Yiddish-ism — is both an inside joke and a sly reference to Kipen's belief that today's Latino residents of Boyle Heights are the natural successors to the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who helped revitalize U.S. culture a century ago.
As a christening gift, L.A. artist J. Michael Walker made Kipen some Libros Schmibros business cards, inscribed with sepia portraits of the store's venerably hirsute (and utterly bogus) "founders," the "Schmee" brothers, Jacob and Elias. (Schmee Bros. — get it?)
The store, at 2000 E. 1st St., is open Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from noon to 6 p.m., and by appointment "or rapping on the glass." Its owner usually can be found decked out in shorts, running shoes and a Hawaiian shirt, asking customers what they like to read or commiserating with the neighborhood State Farm agent about the lousy condition of the Dodgers. However, Kipen's faith in Dodgers announcer Vin Scully, like his faith in literature, remains unshakeable.
" Thomas Pynchon taught me to write and Vin Scully taught me to listen," he said.
Kipen arrived in Boyle Heights via a circuitous personal and professional route. His father, "a surgeon who smoked," died when Kipen was 6. He and his mother decamped for several years to Palm Springs, where Dodgers broadcasts kept him emotionally tethered to L.A. Later, he managed an art-house movie theater, started writing journalism and wound up as book review editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.
He lives in a loft space in back of his store and reckons that he has invested about $1,000 from his own pocket in his new venture. He supplements his minimal income from the bookstore with freelance journalism and radio commentaries for "The Bob Edwards Show" on Sirius XM and by hosting authors' speaking gigs around town.
"I'm nostalgic about health insurance," he conceded. "At some time, the siren song of solvency may become audible for someone as impractical as me."
About a dozen people volunteer at Libros Schmibros, including L.A. writer Marisela Norte and Colleen Jaurretche, who taught English at UCLA until she was laid off last year. A James Joyce specialist ("Finnegans Wake," to be precise), Jaurretche said she was drawn to Libros Schmibros after meeting Kipen and seeing how his shop was serving as "more of a community service than a business."
Among its regular users are local students who meet there to read and study. Jaurretche watched one young man with ear buds and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt sit engrossed for a solid hour in T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land."
"It was really deeply moving," she said.
Elvis Lopez, 17, a Mendez Learning Center student toting a copy of "Dante's Inferno," explained why he regularly cruises the merchandise at Libros Schmibros and sometimes helps shelve books. "It opens up a new world," he said, "because the library kind of sucks. All the books aren't even interesting, most of them. And if they [are], they're usually checked out or been stolen."
Public libraries across the United States have been under siege as the recession batters municipal budgets. Last spring, the city of Los Angeles began shutting regional libraries and downtown's Central Library on Sundays.
Kipen decided to open Libros Schmibros on July 19, the same day that the neighborhood's Benjamin Franklin branch and more than 70 other public libraries cut their hours from six days a week to five. Another spur to choosing Boyle Heights, he said, was the energizing effect of attending the 2009 Guadalajara International Book Fair, where Los Angeles literature was spotlighted and bilingual conversation was in the air.
Abel Salas, who edits and publishes the community newspaper Brooklyn and Boyle at Corazón del Pueblo, said Libros Schmibros has been a welcome addition to a culturally resurgent neighborhood that prizes cooperation and do-it-yourself effort. "It's nurturing and nourishing some readers who will eventually grow up to be writers," Salas said.
Skira Martinez, one of Salas' partners at Corazón, said she has "become addicted already" to Libros Schmibros. "It's really nice to have David next door because it's just another educational component," Martinez said. "He's keeping it affordable to the community."
City Councilman José Huizar, who voted against several of the recent proposed library cuts, called the bookstore "a real godsend" for a neighborhood where "a lot of kids can't afford books."
Kipen said he's determined to keep Libros Schmibros from "going up in smoke." Those who know him well don't doubt that he'll succeed.
Apart from that, his long-range goals aren't entirely clear, perhaps even to himself. He was in the running for one arts job this year, and there's another that "I suppose I should throw my hat into the ring for."
But would a plum faculty post let him take time out to snag a tamarind candy and a chat in Spanglish from a passing street vendor? Would some nonprofit bully pulpit provide the thrill of having a kid walk in and ask where he keeps the H.P. Lovecraft or Charles Bukowski?
"David is both extraordinarily sophisticated and genuinely authentic, even to the point of innocence," Gioia said. "The one thing you can say for sure about David is that he will always be doing something surprising."