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Books by mail: A Santa Ana arts center reimagines lending library services

Marytza Rubio at Makara Library headquarters.
Marytza Rubio at Makara Library headquarters.
(Greg Camphire)

Marytza Rubio’s home is stocked with books. About 300 titles travel back and forth between her bookshelves and the post office. An estimated 750 are stored inside weatherproof bins in the garage. The inventory is a part of Makara Center for the Arts’ book collection, which has continued to circulate since the brick-and-mortar space shut down last year.

Rubio, a writer who was born and raised in Santa Ana, said she always loved books and had an affinity for specialized collections like the fashion library at Otis College of Art and Design, her former workplace. After completing an MFA program based in South America, she wanted to bring the bookstores, libraries and kiosks she came across in cities like Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Santiago to her hometown.

“I didn’t want to teach. I’m not really into academia or any similar formal environments,” Rubio said. “I wanted to recreate some of the energy in those places I visited, but specifically that kind of library that I was able to explore when I was working at Otis.”

She describes Makara as a lending library specializing in global arts and culture with a focus on perspectives that have been historically excluded.

The volunteer-run nonprofit was established in 2016. Rubio held pop-up book clubs and sold books to fundraise. A year later, she opened a commercial space on 811 N. Main St. The book inventory, free to Santa Ana residents, began to grow. Programming like book clubs, kid-friendly Surreal StoryTime, lectures on Santa Ana history and Tarot and Tea kept the center busy for the next couple of years.

Exterior of Makara Center for the Arts, which closed in 2020.
Exterior of Makara Center for the Arts in Santa Ana, which closed in 2020.
(Courtesy of Julie Leopo)

In early 2020, Rubio and the center’s board members started having conversations about how to make Makara sustainable.

“It’s demanding to have a space that’s volunteer run,” Rubio said. “We have jobs. We have family and other commitments … Rents are rising in Santa Ana, and we’re not connected to Orange County wealth. How will we be able to bring in enough money to sustain Makara?”

Before they could answer those questions, the coronavirus pandemic took over. They decided not to renew the lease on the commercial space. When they moved out in May 2020, they gave away as much of their 1,500 book inventory as possible.

Interior of Makara Center for the Arts' brick-and-mortar space.
Interior of Makara Center for the Arts’ brick-and-mortar space.
(Courtesy of Julie Leopo)

Little did they know by October 2020, the center would have to rebuild some of its collection to launch Makara by Mail, a mail-order library service.

Readers can sign up for individual or family Makara library cards, select books online to be borrowed for up to 28 days (with no late fee charges) and return via mail with a prepaid postage. The service is free to Santa Ana residents and open to nonresidents across the United States through a one-time fee for a paid membership, with all funds going toward the center’s services. The online book catalog was reorganized (in English and Spanish) with funds from the CARES Arts Relief Grant and the Literary Arts Emergency Fund.

“You become part of a community because our collection is so small,” Rubio said. “It only works if we all play our part. If a book goes out and it doesn’t come back, that’s OK. We’re not going to bar someone from using our library again because that defeats the purpose.”

There are about 250 patrons still active through the mail program. Rubio sends out 10 to 15 books a month. The majority of readers are located in Santa Ana, but she has mailed out books as far as New York.

Some children’s books available through Makara by Mail.
Some children’s books available through Makara by Mail.
(Courtesy of Makara Center for the Arts)

Olivia Remijio, 51, initially found Makara on Instagram. The Newport Beach resident, who grew up and works in Santa Ana, became a frequent patron of the brick-and-mortar and eventually the mail service.

“I didn’t recognize any of the [book] titles, which was exciting to me,” Remijio said. “I noticed that a lot of the books were also in Spanish and other languages.”

Remijio later added, “If I can get anything in the mail to brighten my day, especially during 2020. I was on it.”

Her first Makara by Mail order was “Cemetery Boys” by Aiden Thomas.

Adriana Alexander, 41, was first introduced to Rubio while she held pop-up book clubs. The Santa Ana resident, who is acting as a family caregiver while working on her own writing and mural projects, remembers going to an event featuring artist Leonora Carrington and a presentation on Mesa Blanca, a type of spiritism based in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

“Marytza’s warm personality and her point of view are definitely part of what draw people in,” Alexander said. “But once you get there, it’s really about all the many interesting things you can learn that maybe you didn’t even know existed before ... Makara is really good at being the cultural resource you didn’t really know you were missing.”

Authors Darcie Little Badger, Kazuo Ishiguro, Marlon James, Samanta Schweblin and Akwaeke Emezi have been on Alexander’s 2020 reading lists.

Rubio curates book titles based on Makara readers’ interests, books that are influencing cultural conversations at large and book selections from Reparations Club and Haymarket Books.

She’s found reader interest correlates to current events. Rubio said there’s a current spike in requests for books on Palestine and the Middle East. After the Atlanta spa shootings, there was a higher interest in Charles Yu’s “Interior Chinatown” and other books that dealt with the Asian American experience. Any time there’s a police shooting, she said there’s an interest in books on abolishing policing and imprisonment.

Since 2017, the top 10 most checked out books have been “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters” by Emil Ferris, “Get in Trouble: Stories” by Kelly Link, “An African American and Latinx History of the United States” by Paul Ortiz, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, “Mama The Alien/Mama la Extraterrestre” by René Colato Laínez, “The Ultimate Guide to Tarot: A Beginner’s Guide to the Cards, Spreads, and Revealing the Mystery of the Tarot” by Liz Dean, “The Strange Library” by Haruki Murakami, “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” by Erika L. Sánchez, “The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir” by Emma Reyes, and “Abuela’s Weave” by Omar S. Castaneda.

The most requested books through Makara by Mail.
The most requested books through Makara by Mail.
(Courtesy of Makara Center for the Arts)

As the state is slated to reopen mid-June, Rubio is thinking about what the future for Makara looks like.

“I’m very happy to see that there are more types of projects like this,” Rubio said. “There’s Noname Book Club ... there’s the Feminist Library on Wheels. When I see these projects taking an anti-capitalist approach, genuinely rooted in knowledge and collective empowerment, I am so encouraged by that and I want to see more of it … [Makara] is working on sharing the knowledge that we’ve accumulated in starting this project and making it available to anyone who’s interested in doing their own project whether its a library, theater company or a way to share music.”

Most recently, the center supplied the books that stocked free little libraries set up across Santa Ana through the Boca de Oro festival.

“I never thought you could just start your own library,” Remijio said. “That’s what I have appreciated about 2020 — that people have been putting books outside of their houses, literally encouraged to create their own libraries.”

For more information or to check out books, visit makarabymail.com.

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