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Libros Schmibros at the Hammer: What's a Boyle Heights Bookstore Doing at the Westwood Art Museum?

A seven-foot-tall calavera, designed by Boyle Heights artist Johanna Aguilar, reads Gravity's Rainbow in the lobby.
A seven-foot-tall calavera, designed by Boyle Heights artist Johanna Aguilar, reads Gravity's Rainbow in the lobby.
Sam Bloch

Is Los Angeles a literary city?

In a recent interview, Los Angeles Review of Books editor-in-chief Tom Lutz says so. He describes an excitement that you can't find in the New York book world -- and casually notes that Los Angeles is the biggest book market in the country.

I thought of Lutz as I walked into Libros Schmibros, the venerated lending library and used bookstore now in residency at the lobby gallery in UCLA's Hammer Museum. I wondered where these millions of book readers buy their books, since Libros Schmibros is the only bookstore in its home neighborhood of Boyle Heights.

Libros Schmibros at the Hammer: What's a Boyle Heights Bookstore Doing at the Westwood Art Museum?
Sam Bloch

Located a few blocks east of Mariachi Plaza, and across the street from nonprofit theater Casa 0101, Libros Schmibros is comprised largely of proprietor David Kipen's personal collection of seven thousand books, which visitors can borrow for free and local residents can buy for less than two dollars a pop. Local literati chat by the California history section, young students browse well-worn novels, and of course the charismatic Kipen, greeting visitors, is usually listening to a Dodger game. Its success is a testament to the irrepressibility of niche entrepreneurialism. By the time Kipen wraps up his residency at the Hammer, Borders will have liquidated its entire inventory.

The story of Kipen's libreria has captivated local media. After leaving the National Endowment for the Arts, the Westwood native (and occasional LA Weekly scribe) moved back to Los Angeles and opened a store on the other side of town. The Spanish word "libros" is a nod to the neighborhood's Mexican-American population and the Yiddish prefix of "schmuh" references Boyle Heights' Jewish roots. On Saturday's opening party at the Hammer, Kipen repeatedly explains the reference to visitors. "It deflates any pretention from the word that precedes it," he says.

When Kipen opened his store last July, it filled a crucial void in Boyle Heights. At the time, city libraries were denied crucial funding and forced to cut hours and close on Mondays. But it's less necessary in Westwood, where, despite the recent passing of Kipen's beloved Mystery Bookstore, there are still booksellers. Just a few blocks down on Westwood Boulevard, for example, there's a small Iranian cluster, including Ketab Sara, the local franchise of the Tehran-based publishing house.

Inside the institutional context of the Hammer, the store feels like a love letter to Kipen's childhood, or at least a postcard from the other side of town. And like prior installments in the museum's Public Engagement series -- such as Ana Prvacki's etiquette lessons, Machine Project's confrontational singing in the galleries -- its very presence questions the discourse of dominant culture.

"Starting with books and ideas, rather than your typical clerical and sterile environment, is such an unbelievable entry point to the rest of the museum," says Allison Agsten, the curator of public engagement. "The sense of discovery and surprise that you get in a lending library -- it can be transformative for a museum experience."

Kipen, co-director Colleen Jaurretche, and a few volunteers have taken great pains to recreate the Boyle Heights vibe here. There are young adult and pulp novel sections, paper lanterns in the air, even the same signage on the door. I thought I heard a Dodger game trickling out of an iPhone. And some office furniture notwithstanding, there's the aesthetic comfort a visitor needs to sit down and read a book. On Saturday, that warmth was felt outside the doors of the gallery, turning this sterile or perhaps intimidating lobby -- which is always free to visit, while the rest of the museum is paid admission -- into a something like a street corner.

Visitors look at a literary map of L.A.
Visitors look at a literary map of L.A.
J. Michael Walker

Many of the visitors gawked at J. Michael Walker's 23-foot-long "literary map" of Los Angeles, which grafts excerpts from fiction, poetry, songs and criticism into a wild, time-traveling cultural index. There's Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood in Pacific Palisades, where the elegiac musings stand in contrast to Tom Waits on Ivar, writing with great empathy about the dreamers who got stuck somewhere desolate. Move further east to Macarthur Park and you'll read the diaries of Juan Crespi, the Franciscan friar who in 1769 accidentally offended the native Chumash when he didn't have a bowl to carry their gift of plant seeds. In Boyle Heights, Walker depicts Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries posting a sincere rebuttal to a Raymond Chandler story sixty years earlier.

Kipen and co-director Colleen Jaurretche will use the next few weeks to demonstrate that books alone do not foster literary cultures. Libros Schmibros will host participatory events at both locations, including a "marathon reading" of On The Road (also the subject of an Ed Ruscha exhibition now on view at Hammer), conversations that move Westwood writers to Boyle Heights and vice-versa, and a panel on getting through the city without a car.

Through internet access -- and in Westwood, in particular, which has achieved what Kipen calls "Kindle and iPad penetration" -- people everywhere are now free to pursue the bookish pursuit of solitary reading. But through Kipen's residency, these two neighborhoods, otherwise unfit for comparison, now have a common space to engage in that most literary pursuit of informed conversation.

Libros Schmibros is on view through Sunday, October 9 at The Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., 310-443-7000, hammer.ucla.edu.

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Hammer Museum

10899 Wilshire Blvd.
Westwood, CA 90024

310-443-7000

hammer.ucla.edu