September 16, 2019

Bringing books to Boyle Heights

The other night, my city councilman was wishing aloud for a new word to call what’s happening lately with our neighborhood, Boyle Heights. “Revitalization” and “resurgence” came to mind, but they sounded a little on the generic side — no more appropriate to Boyle Heights than to downtown, say, or Eagle Rock. Unspoken was the eagerness to christen it anything but what a few have called it: gentrification.

As the founder of Libros Schmibros, a Boyle Heights lending library and used bookshop, naturally I’d rather not think of myself as an agent of gentrification. At Libros, we lend any book out for free. If folks want to keep a book, so much the better — we just ask for a suggested donation of half the list price. If they’re from Boyle Heights, we ask only a dollar.

So, if opening a bookstore counts as gentrification, would somebody please gentrify Beverly Hills — or, as we in Boyle Heights call it, “the other B.H.”? I used to bike home daily from Beverly Hills High School, back when bookstores still bloomed every few blocks there. Nowadays, the choice of bookstores in Beverly Hills is down to one, Taschen Books, whose pricing policy differs somewhat from ours.

If I sound a little touchy on the subject of gentrification, it’s not hard to guess why. I think of gentry as rich, which I’m not. I think of them as speculators, while I struggle to make rent every month. I also think of gentrifiers as having good taste in decorating, which I don’t, particularly. And last, rightly or wrongly, I think of gentry as gentile, and I am among the first Jews to move back into Boyle Heights since Los Angeles built the freeways.

Of course, with Jews like me, who needs goyim? I was confirmed at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform congregation across the Sepulveda Pass from the Getty. I admired the two rabbis who led it, but fundamentalist it wasn’t. We didn’t plant trees in Israel, we rehabbed single-room-occupancy housing on Skid Row. I went to Sunday school with bacon on my breath, and Cantor Sharlin played guitar.

Even today, if you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me what I am, before I’d identify myself as a Jew I’d probably call myself a Californian. But part of claiming California as your birthright is knowing your family’s history in it. What pathetically little I know, at least so far, leads back to a narrow little graveyard just over the East L.A. border called Agudath Achim, to two neighboring headstones for Anna and Israel Lake.

What I know about Anna and Israel fits easily into a paragraph. Not a Henry James-size three-pager, either, but a newspaper paragraph, wider than it is deep — rectangular, like the cemetery, or one of its plots. I know that Anna, Israel and I are related, because my family has told me as much. It’s not hard to get some of my relatives to talk about their parents’ generation. It’s just hard to get them to say anything I can actually remember.

I know that all the Lakes started out as Lefkowitzes, but beyond that, not much. When I ask about Anna and Israel, I want to know what did they look like, did they speak English, did they fall in love or were they fixed up by a yenta? My family would rather tell me how many times removed all the cousins are. I should press them, and write their answers down, but I don’t. All I know is, Anna and Israel made a life in and around Boyle Heights — not so different from what I’m doing now. 

A year ago, on July 19, I opened Libros Schmibros to the public. Nobody knew what to make of it at first — not my family and friends, not my new neighbors, really not me either. My beloved cousin Ella Zarky — who was honored this spring by The Jewish Federation in L.A. — regarded me with a mix of pride and healthy suspicion, as if I were somehow poaching on her territory. I’d never shown much in the way of philanthropic tendencies before. 

What she didn’t understand was that I opened a lending library/used bookshop in Boyle Heights for purely selfish reasons. I like hanging around with people who read, but lately readers have seemed thinner on the ground. I like bookstores and libraries, but most of the ones I knew were either closing early or shutting for good. It was either look for a job in a lousy economy, or make one up from scratch. I went for the choice that promised less rejection. How could I know that some kids would actually get turned on to reading at Libros Schmibros, and that I’d wind up doing a more street-level version of “reading promotion” than I’d ever practiced when I was the National Endowment for the Arts’ director of national reading initiatives? 

As for my neighbors, they couldn’t have been nicer, but I must have looked like a total dilettante. Almost every day, someone from right around the corner will still drop in for the first time and say, in effect, “I’ve been meaning to come in, but I figured you’d have given up by now.” Well, I’m not giving up. I’m having too good a time. I get to hang out with people who read, and I can’t decide which I like better, bookstores or libraries, so I run a combination of the two. 

The punch line is, after a year of denying that Libros Schmibros is a form of philanthropy, now I have to deny that it’s art, too. The Hammer Museum has invited Libros to create a pop-up version of our shop in its lobby gallery at Wilshire and Westwood from late August to early October. Running two crosstown shops, even just for six weeks, will probably bankrupt us, but if my sainted volunteers are up for it, so am I. Westwood just lost its last two bookstores a few months ago. Who’s to say some benevolent Westwood landlord won’t take a shine to us and invite us to stay on after the Hammer installation closes? 

Libros Schmibros comes billed as a lending library/used bookshop for Boyle Heights, it’s true. But if Libros could ever become a model to irrigate the book desert that my hometown is becoming, it wouldn’t be the first time that Boyle Heights led the way and Los Angeles followed.

Libros Schmibros, a lending library/used bookstore for Boyle Heights, is located at 2000 E. First St., Los Angeles.  E-mail: