LOS ANGELES—Amid taquerias, mom-and-pop shops, and fruit and taco stands at Boyle Height’s Mariachi Plaza Station in East Los Angeles, one store sticks out—a bookshop with rainbow-splattered bricks and a hand-painted yellow sign above the entrance that reads, “Libros Schmibros Lending Library.”
Inside, books cover one wall from floor to ceiling, and more books are piled on tables in the center of the room, where a gap-toothed man sits silently reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
Owner David Kipen, wearing a black Libros Schmibros T-shirt under a Hawaiian-print shirt, looks up from his Post-it Note pockmarked book as I walk in and greets me with a smile.
He started this lending library—which loans out books for up to three weeks for free—more than two years ago when budget cuts forced local libraries to close their doors on Mondays.
A former book reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle and director of the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Reading Initiatives, Kipen had collected more than 6,000 books.
“So the idea was not just to put books in people’s hands, but to get them off my shelves,” he said.
The plan failed. When people got wind of Libros Schmibros, they donated boxes of used books, tripling the original number of books Kipen had. Books that don’t fit into the library’s bookshelves await in a separate storage room several blocks away.
Last year, the landlady of Mariachi Plaza invited him to move in, impressed with Libros Schmibros’ community-oriented policy: free loans and a $1 to $1.50 price tag for patrons who want to keep the used books. For good-quality first editions, Kipen will sell them for half-price. Often if a book is popular and low-stocked, he suggests the customer borrow it instead so others can read it, too.
While Libros Schmibros isn’t a moneymaking endeavor—Kipen is a freelance writer for news publications and accepts donations to stay solvent—he believes in the importance of reading.
“It enriched my life immeasurably,” Kipen said. “If I can share a little of that with my neighbors and people all over town, it seems like a way of paying back a debt.”
Raised in the Beverly Hills, Kipen said he would never have cared to return to Los Angeles if it hadn’t been for books he read about the city’s diverse ethnic enclaves, cultural landmarks, and mom-and-pop eateries. Soon he was driving all over town, “burning through gas and cars.” After his National Endowment for the Arts career ended, he fell in love with Boyle Heights, a majority-Latino neighborhood east of the Los Angeles River.
Kipen, a Jew, recognized the history of the city in his bookstore’s name: Boyle Heights was once a vibrant Jewish neighborhood in the 1920s. While “Libros” means “books” in Spanish, “Schmibros” is a neo-Yiddish expression, typically uttered with hands thrown up in the air to mean, “It’s not that big a deal.”
While many private bookshop owners complain about tough competition from iPads and Kindles, Kipen’s customer base consistently increases. He has up to 40 visitors a day, including local Boyle Heights residents, medical interns in scrubs, high school students, and actors. Patrons travel as much as 40 minutes from North Hollywood to visit his store.
Kipen said other bookshops struggle because they typically exist in wealthier neighborhoods whose residents can afford to own such technological gadgets. “I think the future of bookshops lies in working-class neighborhoods like this one,” he said.
Back at the store, volunteer Cuauhtémoc Hernandez reads the first book he picked up: How Not to Make a Short Film. Born in Boyle Heights, Hernandez first stumbled upon Libros Schmibros early this year. He walked in asking to use the restroom and walked out that day with a $2 poster of James Joyce. He has been returning ever since.
Hernandez, 21, said he loved Libros Schmibros because it serves the community and wasn’t “corrupted by profit margins.”
“There are few establishments that really help this community,” Hernandez said. “This isn’t a place you would imagine. It’s a jewel.”