Santa Ana’s Libro Mobile is making moves

Assistant Marilynn Montano and owner Sarah Rafael Garcia stand in the new Libro Mobile bookstore location in Santa Ana.
Assistant Marilynn Montano and owner Sarah Rafael Garcia, from left, stand in the new Libro Mobile bookstore location in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

LibroMobile Arts Cooperative has been a Santa Ana staple since it opened in 2016.

Sarah Rafael Garcia, an artist, educator, curator and author, opened the bookstore in response to the closing of another iconic Santa Ana bookstore, Librería Martínez, which was founded by Chicano activist Rueben Martinez.

“We work so hard to exist as an indie bookstore, as a mobile bookstore,” said Garcia.

LibroMobile is a literary arts co-op and bookstore that builds community and promotes literacy by offering books and free art programming. The hybrid nonprofit organization’s mission is to cultivate diversity through literature and the arts by prioritizing Black, Indigenous, people of color and integrating free reading and writing programs, visual exhibits and more.

Sarah Rafael Garcia arranges books inside the new Libro Mobile bookstore location in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

LibroMobile lives in a small warehouse in the alley off 4th and Spurgeon streets — until Saturday, that is.

The shop will close Jan. 2 through Jan. 7 to move to a new location at 1150 S. Bristol St. #A3, in Santa Ana, near the Bristol Swap Meet.

Since its start, the bookstore has existed in many places.

“We got pushcarts, and then from the pushcarts we went to a stairway,” Garcia said. “We literally rented a stairway to pop up in on 4th Street. From the stairway, we went into the warehouse, and we have been in the warehouse since 2018.”

But running the bookstore out of the tiny 190-square-foot warehouse space hasn’t been easy, and the pandemic also made business difficult.

LibroMobile reopened in June after a tough time in lockdown. “We were super excited to have survived the pandemic as a small business,” Garcia said.

Garcia had planned a grand reopening that would include a book-signing by a local author, but an outdoor event on 4th Street forced the event to move to the Bookman in Orange.

“This became on an ongoing issue,” Garcia said. “It became a problem again during the poet laureates’ reading.”

Two outdoor festival events popped up in downtown Santa Ana during a reading event by Dr. Natalie J. Graham and Tina Mai, Orange County’s first pair of poet laureates.

“We were completely drowned out, and to me it was very unfortunate because it was our inaugural O.C. poet laureate year,” said Garcia. “It is the first poet laureate the county ever had, and we were overshadowed by these two festivals.”

Marilynn Montano arranges books on a shelf at the new Libro Mobile bookstore location in Santa Ana.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Garcia has had conversations and explored avenues with City Council members to keep apprised of local events.

“Since then less events have happened on 3rd and Bush, but they continue to happen around us,” Garcia said.

Although she said her experience has been frustrating, she said it has also emphasized the work LibroMobile does.

“To me, it is a reminder of why we exist to begin with,” Garcia said. “Because we cannot not have a bookstore.”

Fortunately, Garcia is well connected to her community.

Garcia created a book installation at the Bristol Swap Mall food court in collaboration with the Dynamite book club, a Santa Ana youth organization that began as Little Free Library nonprofit in response to COVID-19.

“One day when I was complaining about everything that was happening, they asked if I would be interested in moving there,” Garcia said.

Initially, Garcia said she wanted to expand LibroMobile to two locations.

“The goal was to expand and not to close down the downtown location because I feel there is still a need to be there,” said Garcia. “There is this need to counter this idea of consumption versus literature.”

It also feels scary to leave a home she has spent so much time cultivating, she said.

“The warehouse has become this staple for Downtown Santa Ana,” Garcia said. “We always offer free books to the community. We are always finding ways to work with our graffiti artist in the alley way so we can promote collaboration versus criminalization. So it has been a long process of not just gaining patrons but respect and support from everyone.”

In the end, Garcia decided to put all of her efforts into the bigger location.

“The new bookstore is going to definitely be more of what the people deserve,” Garcia said. “Our community deserves to have a nice bookstore that looks like them, sounds like them and feels like them.”

Now Garcia is looking forward to focusing her energy on making the new space, and she has tapped two local artists to help.

“I have been fortunate enough to be familiar with Jose Lozano’s art and Carla Zarate,” Garcia said.

Garcia has been collaborating with Lozano and Zarate to create a space that she describes as a bookstore gallery.

“So when people walk in, it is more than a bookstore. It is a curated literary experience. It will have Lozano art on the wall. It will have SanTana’s Fairytale art by Carla Zarate on a long hallway.”

There are also plans for a digital archive room, which Garcia said means they have plans to start creating archives from the community for and by the community.

“And the hours are going to be longer. We will be open six days a week,” said Garcia.

Garcia has big plans for LibroMobile for 2022 too. A Literary Festival to celebrate the bookstore’s four-year anniversary is planned for Jan. 15 at Santa Ana Heritage Museum, and Garcia said a proper grand opening for the new location will follow.

“We are starting slow and steady,” said Garcia. “We hope to do the grand opening in late February or early March.”

Garcia said that although the move has been emotional, she knows LibroMobile is on the right path.

“One of the reasons we are especially excited about moving to the Bristol Swap Mall plaza is because it is getting us deeper into the community we hope to serve.”

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