Martinez flips to a new chapter
Ruebén Martinez reclines in a wooden Mexican chair in a small Reeves Hall office, but his robust voice seeps into his surrounding community. His conversation, curled with a Mexican accent, floats through the plans for the Librería Martinez de Chapman bilingual bookstore. Intricate designs show that the 215 N. Broadway St. store will be outlined with Chapman plaques.
Yet nearby, memories of when the bookstore won him national acclaim linger in stacked notebooks stuffed with news articles and community awards. The store was then his, and it was named Librería Martinez. The 72-year-old keeps those notebooks safe.
Martinez has risen to notability in Southern California since he opened his first bilingual bookstore in 1993, and then three more throughout the following 15 years.
His popular stores sold Spanish dictionaries, storybooks and self-interest books and held free community classes for reading.
Meanwhile, since 2009, he has served as a Chapman Presidential Fellow by recruiting students who are the first in their families to attend college.
“He was an entrepreneur that was making it when other people weren’t,” said Don Cardinal, dean of the college of educational studies, “and he happened to be Latino, and stayed in his community of Santa Ana.”
By 2012, however, the same economic spiral that sent Borders Group Inc. and Barnes & Noble stores out of business slammed into Martinez’s stores as well.
He had closed all but one when Chapman approached him with an offer to take over the bookstore for its own civic engagement purposes. Martinez signed a contract Sept. 1 to hand the store over for free, and Chapman set the grand re-opening date for Oct. 27.
“It was the biggest relief,” Martinez said. “This is my baby. Chapman will help it grow and raise money to keep it alive.”
Martinez was born in the Hispanic town of Miami, Ariz. in 1940 to Spanish-speaking parents. He quickly learned how to speak and read English in school, and started saving his money for National Geographic magazines.
Miami was a copper-mining town that flaunted only smoke-filled skies and sulfated trees. Martinez’s parents, who both died in their 40s from respiratory diseases, expected him to work in the mines once he turned 18. But Martinez said he saw something better in his magazines.
“I didn’t want to be like my mom and dad,” Martinez said. “They coughed all night from working in those mines.”
After spotting Long Beach in a 1959 issue of National Geographic, Martinez told his parents he planned to drive his light-green Ford truck to California. He would sleep in the trunk on the way.
Once he arrived, he knew he couldn’t return home.
“I buried my feet into the sand because it was so clean, and I couldn’t figure out if it was sugar or salt,” Martinez said. “Then as far as my eye could see there were beautiful colors, and I wrote my mom telling her I was staying.”
Martinez worked night shifts at Bethlehem Steel plant in Maywood and took day classes to earn a barber’s license. After hearing John F. Kennedy speak in Los Angeles, he became involved in politics by working as a delegate for the Democratic Party, and as an assistant to Senate and Council members.
In 1975, confident about his barber career and strong ties to the community, Martinez opened his first barbershop. Hispanic customers asked often if they could borrow his Spanish books he set out. Seeing an opportunity, Martinez said he opened his first Spanish bookstore in 1993 in Santa Ana to encourage Latino communities to read.
“I held those books like they were bricks of gold,” Martinez said. “We’re not a lazy culture, but we need to become more educated.”
The Librería Martinez Book and Art Galleries caught the attention of the McArthur Fellowship, which granted Martinez a $500,000 award for his literacy efforts in the community. It wasn’t enough, though, to save his stores that began struggling to make profit a few years ago.
“I don’t think people understood all the money he was taking out of his own pocket to make it work,” Cardinal said. “The book store kept eating up all the money he had.”
In fact, Martinez said he was spending $5,000 a month out of his own pocket, and hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his business account.
Cardinal said the idea for Chapman to take over the bookstore was an epiphany.
“The college of educational studies faculty had been looking for a place where we can do our work,” Cardinal said. “And Ruebén wasn’t making it and was probably going to have to close his doors.”
Chapman will use the profits from the bookstore to cover the costs of programs and leasing. The university will also ask for help from donors to fund the remaining amount.
“[We’ll keep it open] as long as it makes sense for the Santa Ana community, a very long time,” wrote Chancellor Daniele Struppa in an email. “Ruebén and I come from similar cultures and share a desire to see Chapman be an integral part of the local community.”
This year, a Chapman undergraduate senior seminar class and a graduate class will be using the bookstore as a classroom.
Michelle Samura, assistant professor of education, is teaching the senior seminar class that will meet in the store.
“Any time we can venture outside of the campus space it makes learning possibilities endless,” Samura said. “It’s one of our goals to give our students exposure in fields that mirror what they want to do after graduation.”
Now that Chapman is managing the costs of the bookstore, Martinez said he will enjoy his legacy without running it himself.
“I’m an advocate for literature in any language,” Martinez said. “I’ve always said that reading will take you further than a driver’s license.”