Libros y raíces: LibroMobile fills a literary need as Santa Ana’s only bookstore

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LibroMobile owner, Sarah Rafael Garcia, stands in front of the Bristol Food Court mural. Painted by Muralist José Lozano. INSTA: @rogereyesr. Photo by Lizeth Martinez / el Don

The works of local authors adorn the left wall upon entry, a familiar bienvenidos from the community. To your right, there is a small wooden cart holding comic books and graphic novels, an homage to the paleteros of Santa Ana. Just a few steps forward, a poetry pillar stands from floor to ceiling holding chapter books and thinner poetry books. 

“Every space has been made to recreate the local environment,” said Sarah Rafael Garcia, founder and owner of Libro Mobile, based on Bristol. 

Special collection room: A reference library on the top two shelves. “We want everybody to touch them even if they fall apart in your hands. That’s okay, books are meant to be touched.” said Sarah Rafael Garcia. Photo by Lizeth Martinez / el Don

The poetry pillar is meant to be seen, holding books otherwise hidden and forgotten on the shelves—enforcing visibility. Next to the pillar, the wall on the right holds work from the local artisans of Orange County including tote bags, tea, pottery and more. 

In response to the gentrification of Santa Ana, Garcia has curated a community oriented bookstore beaming with Black, Indeginous, and Latine voices. One of Libro Mobile’s primary goals is accessibility through free books and reading spaces. Since its opening, the bookstore has provided solutions for: low cost books, uplifting local SoCal authors and artists of color, and overall, an open space to read freely.

“I wish more bookstores would bring in all of these writers that you don’t see when browsing bookstores.” said Brian Dunlap, a poet from Los Angeles. 

Poets and authors like Brain Dunlap look to local bookstores that seek to highlight local authors. With the increasing commercialization of books and media, independent bookstores must stick to their mission—LibroMobile’s is: creating accessibility through a literary scene. 

“I wish more bookstores would bring in all of these writers that you don’t see when browsing bookstores.” said Brian Dunlap, a poet from Los Angeles. Photo by Lizeth Martinez / el Don

The American Booksellers Association (ABA) identifies Amazon as the biggest threat to indie bookstores. Allison Hill, CEO of ABA writes that “​​Although the value propositions of Amazon and indie bookstores are vastly different, Amazon still represents a threat. Amazon continues to “box out” local bookstores and other small businesses all across the country.” 

Through a number of reform measures, including the American Choice & Innovation Online Act, the American Booksellers Association seeks to regulate Amazon to aid independent bookstores by leveling the playing field.

“We are in it for the passion and in it to build accessibility to literature, to relevant literature in our community, ” said Garcia on starting a bookstore like LibroMobile. “It can start small with a lending library at your doorstep. Reach out to your community, we started out with book donations. Doesn’t have to be big and perfect, it just has to fill a need in your community.”

LibroMobile started in a stairway and has since flourished into a storefront next to the Bristol Swap Mall. It has been nearly a year since its opening on Bristol—and six years since its start in Santa Ana. 

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“Indie bookstores are known for their creativity, their resilience, and their support of their communities—offering partnering with other local businesses, celebrating diverse voices, and offering virtual and hybrid events” says Allison Hill, CEO of ABA. 

Four Los Angeles poets come to LibroMobile for a poetry reading. From left to right: Nikolai Garcia, Brian Dunlap, Iris De Anda, Christian Garcia. Photo by Lizeth Martinez / el Don

LibroMobile holds open mics, poetry readings, and virtual hours open to all. Poetry readings highlight local poets while open mics introduce newcomers to the world of spoken word.

American Library Association 2022-2023 President, Lessa Pelayo-Lozada attended a poetry reading at LibroMobile in support of her husband, Christian Lozada, an L.A. poet. President Pelayo-Lozada said, “Literacy and reading can be a very independent act but, when you create community around it and have individuals come together to talk about the things they’ve read that they love, and sharing and creating things together, that’s really what makes literacy important and allows literacy to continue.” 

In facing challenges against commercialization and the digitalization of literature, LibroMobile found challenges with being in a working class neighborhood. “Rent plays a huge role. When rent is due, it’s the week we have the least guests; they don’t have the capacity to shop on rent week,” said Garcia. 

The Spanish section is at the front of the bookstore as opposed to the back. Being billingual is a part of LibroMobile’s identity. Photo by Lizeth Martinez / el Don

In seeking to understand such struggles, LibroMobile has created a space that not only collaborates with local writers, but creates a space where the community can walk in and there’s no obligation to participate in consumption of some sort. 

“It’s not about money, it’s about community and empowerment first,” said Garcia.

Youth worker, Miguel Angel “Mikey” Flores found LibroMobile through #CaliforniansForAll and has since read a book for the first time in 15 years. 

“I loved to read when I was little. Then I forgot about books; I’m slowly coming back into reading here at the library,” said Mikey. The Salt Sorcerer of Oz by Eric Shanower is his current favorite book at the bookstore for its interesting plot line and dazzling characters. 

Sarah Rafael Garcia’s journey for accessible literature is far from over. 

“We want to give a bookstore that our community deserves—give away books for free so that people can walk in here and not feel obligated to give me money,” said Garcia. “I’m not here for the city, not here for the politicians, I’m here for the youth that I used to be.” 

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