Fruitvale Gets New Bookstore, New Sense of Self
By Duane Moles, October 2, 2006 09:50 AM
OAKLAND -- On a Friday afternoon, the sugary smell of baked treats waft down Fruitvale Avenue. The smell entices a steady flow of customers up the block from Oakland's International Boulevard to a Mexican bakery. A women leaving the bakery pauses, then notices something new next door: a bookstore.
Sure, there are a few other places you can buy a book in the Fruitvale: one store has a rack of pulp Westerns, and a church has storefront where you can find Bibles and religious texts. But if you want to purchase a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a home improvement manual, or even "Chicken Soup for the Soul," then Libreria Coyoacan is the only shop in the neighborhood. Some 13 bookcases may seem like a small selection, but the array of books, all but a handful in Spanish, is a milestone in the revival of the Fruitvale.
Libreria Coyoacan's owner, 32-year old Ivan Hurtado, arrived in the United States three years ago. Weary of the crime in his home city, he left a steady job as a broker and investment advisor working at Mexico City's foreign exchange to reunite with his parents who had come to the States more than a decade ago.
Despite his experience and international business degree from a top Mexican university, Hurtado could only find work in dead-end jobs—construction worker, electrician, dental assistant. "It was depressing," said Hurtado.
When Hurtado decided to open his bookstore earlier this year, he saw it as more than just a chance for him to own a business. He felt it would also help his neighbors. "A community that reads, a community learns more, they have better opportunities to live a better life, get a better job—not just in construction," said Hurtado.
Fruitvale resident and regular customer Graciela Seeley agreed.
"A bookstore is necessary for every neighborhood, and this one didn't have one," she said.
Lara Walker, a 19-year-old who lives east of the neighborhood, was surprised when she found Coyoacan. Walker typically reads in English, but she says Hurtado's store will make it easier for her to reconnect with her Hispanic heritage. The bookstores where she usually shops basically don't carry books in Spanish. "They only have like 5 or 6 books in Spanish literature," she said. "They don't have much to offer."
Over the last 15 years, the Fruitvale has had a slow rebirth. Tax revenues are up and retail vacancies are down. But the shopping corridor along International Boulevard remains saturated with a narrow spectrum of businesses: discount shops, Mexican restaurants, beauty salons, and sneaker shops. Payless Shoes has stores on consecutive blocks along International Boulevard.
The opening of Libreria Coyoacan came as a surprise to many in the neighborhood. Jenny Kassan ran the Unity Council's Main Street program, which spruced up the area by cleaning the streets, helping business owners paint their storefronts, and even painting the trashcans in bright Mexican motifs. For years, she and others at the Unity Council had tried to lure a bookstore into the Fruitvale. Stores either weren't interested, or were unwilling to open in a small retail space.
"Suddenly this guy came along and opened a bookstore," Kassan said.
Local independent businesses like Libreria Coyoacan "add to the community feel" of the Fruitvale according to Sergio Arroyo, a program coordinator with the Fruitvale's Spanish Speaking Citizens Foundation. But Arroyo remains cautious. "The real challenge will be keeping the place open."
Janet Lopez, manager of the local branch of the Oakland Public Library, also says the Coyoacan may have a tough time. "People here (in the Fruitvale) are still kind of in survival mode," says Lopez. Her patrons come to the library for books on practical subjects: immigration assistance, ESL texts, resume writing, buying a house, family relations.
Independent bookstores around the country are struggling to stay afloat. Since the 1990s, the number of independent bookstores across the nation has been cut by more than half—from more than 4000 to about 1800—largely due to competition from mega-stores like Barnes and Noble and Borders, and the advent of Amazon.com. Bookstores face challenges different than other retailers. Their merchandise comes with a price already printed on it, and retailers don't get a large discount from distributors. Many bookstores struggle to make the 2% profit that is the industry formula for staying afloat.
"You have to do it because you love what you do," says Northern California Independent Booksellers Association head Hut Landon
Community involvement is critical to the success of any bookstore. Michael Tucker, owner of local bookstore chain Books Inc., says that if a bookstore is going to survive, "it needs to be interactive with the community," either through ties to local schools, or through cultural events.
Until late July, Coyoacan was tucked into tiny storefront barely 15 feet wide. Six months earlier, Hurtado had purchased some 200 books that were stacked along the floor and took over the lease. He then started making what he calls "a real bookstore."
For the first few months, the bright new lighting and shelves brought customers to Coyoacan, but the lack of floor space cramped Hurtado's vision for his bookstore. By May, Hurtado had started negotiating a deal to swap places with a beauty salon a block south. The new store offered Hurtado the space to transform his shop.
Since reopening, Hurtado has brought in more Mexican handicrafts and paintings—all for sale. He added a couple of small tables and a pair of new computers with internet access in the back of the store. Beyond the physical changes, Hurtado has begun experimenting with free in-store events: book debates, movie nights, and children's story time. An evening dedicated to Aztec culture has been the most successful so far. A dozen people spent the evening talking about the Aztec calendar and mathematics.
When Hurtado opened Libreria Coyoacan, he chose to name store after the neighborhood in Mexico City where he grew up. Once home to Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Leon Trotsky, Coyoacan has remained a neighborhood where the arts and political action meet. Beyond the name, Liberia Coyoacan keeps Hurtado connected to his roots. When Hurtado has trouble tracking down a hard to find book, he sometimes calls old friends back in Mexico City.
"Of course I miss the food, the tradition, the parties, but I think that my mission at this time is here," he says.