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Los Angeles’ Only Spanish-Language Children’s Bookstore Will Soon Get Bigger

When Chiara Arroyo and Celene Navarrete decided to sell children’s books in Spanish in 2012, they weren’t worried about customer demand.

As mothers of children at Edison Language Academy in Santa Monica, they saw that the market for bilingual books for Latinos and non-Latinos was booming, especially as schools created language programs. double immersion. As immigrants from Mexico and Spain, they knew that Spanish had been a part of Southern California for over 250 years and was not going to disappear any time soon.

No, what worried them was the eternal question Angelenos face:

A smiling woman has her left hand on her chin.

Celene Navarrete, co-founder of LA Librería, in her bookstore.

(Etienne Laurent / For the Times)

How to succeed in Los Angeles?

“It’s so easy to be invisible in this city,” Navarrete told me as we walked toward the back of LA Librería, the brick-and-mortar store that she and Arroyo own and run. “It’s so spread out. Promotion is so hard. We have to go from community to community, street by street.

Navarrete and Arroyo knew that success was not guaranteed, even in a city with a long Spanish-language literary tradition, a megalopolis where the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that nearly 40 percent of households speak Spanish. They were preparing to launch at a time when bookstores were closing, Amazon dominated online sales, and the publishing industry was preparing to move from paper to digital.

However, the two men were undeterred due to a sense of obligation brought on by disgust. The few children’s books translated from English to Spanish that they could find were riddled with errors.

“In English, you don’t publish a book with errors,” Arroyo said. “In Spanish, (American publishers) don’t care. They think Spanish-speaking families don’t have money? There are negative values ​​associated with Spanish.

“Such huge prejudices,” Navarrete added. “When we saw the reality,” opening a store “became a necessity.”

They started with an online bookstore and began hosting academic book fairs across the United States. Next came a warehouse in West Adams that opened its doors to the public in 2015. Soon followed community festivals, contracts with schools to provide bilingual books, and a growing reputation as one of the few language children’s bookstores Spanish in the country – and one of the only Spanish-language bookstores in Los Angeles, period.

Two women stand between large shelves filled with books.

Chiara Arroyo, co-founders of LA Librería, left, and Celene Navarrete in the reserve.

(Etienne Laurent / For the Times)

The COVID-19 pandemic nearly ended LA Librería, but Arroyo and Navarrete survived thanks to grants and the fact “the kids were coming home with books to read,” according to Navarrete. The store has not only bounced back, but is also ready for the next stage of success.

I met Arroyo and Navarrete a few weeks ago at their new location: a long, single-story, 4,400-square-foot building in Mid-City that’s double the size of LA Librería’s last location and will officially debut in mid-June. .

“We often wondered if we were crazy,” Arroyo, 47, said, laughing, then glancing at Navarrete. They’re both gregarious but not grating and carry on conversations with the grace and teamwork of Mookie Betts throwing a pitch to Freddie Freeman.

Navarrete, 51, shook his head with a broad smile. “We don’t even believe in what we have, because we are so happy.”

Our tour began in the warehouse section, where 8,000 titles from the Spanish-speaking world on all sorts of topics sat in boxes and on huge steel racks better suited to tires. We spoke almost exclusively in Spanish, with some passages in English although Spanish was my first language. Both were friendly.

An aerial photo of stacks of books.

The books are on display at LA Librería.

(Etienne Laurent / For the Times)

“The interest in bilingualism is there,” said Navarrete, who is also a professor of coding and computer information systems management at Cal State Dominguez Hills. “It changes the importance of keeping Spanish that we have to work on.”

“People want to feel represented,” said Arroyo, a former film critic for Spanish and Mexican publications. “They don’t just ask, ‘Do you have any books from Guatemala?’ They ask: “Do you have any books Since Guatemala?’ They want to see each other.

Of Spanish and Italian descent, Arroyo grew up in Barcelona, ​​Spain, where “on every street corner in small towns there was a bookstore.” Navarrete, originally from the Mexican state of Aguascalientes, grew up in a family where books were not as common but were nonetheless valuable. When the two men met, they were surprised by the lack of Spanish-language literature available in Los Angeles. Festivals and bookstores have come and gone over the decades, due to lack of funding and the precariousness of the book trade in the digital age.

A woman half raises her left hand.

Chiara Arroyo, co-founder of LA Librería.

(Etienne Laurent / For the Times)

“Spanish has always lived here with English – all kinds of Spanish,” Navarrete said. “But most of what we were able to find was through Mexican eyes.”

We were now walking around the LA Librería offices, which also serves as the packing area. Empty carts and carts stood near two employees preparing books for delivery. Cool stuff was everywhere I looked. A collection of Latin American folk tales. A young adult version of the memoir of radio legend Maria Hinojosa. Picture books teaching Spanish words in Nahuatl and Mayan. Above us were giant papier-mâché heads of alebrijes – colorful Mexican folk art figurines – used at LA Librería’s recent appearance at the LA Times Festival of Books, where they held a book signing for me.

“A book in Spanish in this town has a different meaning in this town,” Navarrete said. “A child learns to retain the language of his parents, or simply learns it. For immigrant parents or grandparents, books allow them to teach a new generation, but also to remember.

“It’s a mirror,” Arroyo said. “An entrance.”

The two men laughed about memories of LA Librería’s beginnings: how the warehouse started in their home and moved to their first storefront. How demand quickly outstripped supply. How customers also quickly requested statements.

“Do you know Charlie Chaplin? » said Arroyo. “Our first place was like that. We pull this, move that, and our kitchen transforms into a reading space, just like that!

It won’t be a challenge at the new spot in LA Libería. The visit ended in front of the store. Wooden planks and sheets of plywood were waiting to be transformed into shelves. A glass-enclosed conference room that the two jokingly call “the Fishbowl” will serve as a community gathering space for workshops.

Books in a box.

(Etienne Laurent / For the Times)

Once the store is open, it’s time to work on other dreams. Deepen their relationships with other non-English bookstores in Los Angeles. Their own publishing house. Extension of the Los Angeles Libros Festival, a bilingual fair they co-founded. Sell ​​more adult books in Spanish.

“We control the world of children, but we don’t know the world of adults,” Navarrete said. “But pasito to pasito” – little by little, little by little.

She smiled. “The kids who bought our first books are now in college.”

Arroyo nodded. “Our spouses say we have the stars aligned for us. Maybe they are right!

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