COMMERCE

A Novel Bookstore Settles Down

Sarah Rafael Garcia’s LibroMobile bookstore has evolved from its original home on a planter cart into a location in a storage unit in downtown Santa Ana. The store specializes in Spanish-language and Latin American literature and history books.
JOHN GILHOOLEY
Sarah Rafael Garcia’s LibroMobile bookstore has evolved from its original home on a planter cart into a location in a storage unit in downtown Santa Ana. The store specializes in Spanish-language and Latin American literature and history books.
Community and culture combine at Santa Ana’s LibroMobile.

She describes herself as a “first-generation everything.” The oldest of three sisters, Sarah Rafael Garcia was the first in her Mexican immigrant family to graduate from college, the first to work for a multimillion-dollar corporation, the first to publish a book.

And now she’s the first in her family to own a bookstore based in a 300-square-foot storage unit in an alley in Santa Ana.

Garcia’s LibroMobile has been in operation for more than a year. It’s a compact but well-designed shop, 2,000 books strong, with more in another storage unit and five free mini-libraries sprinkled around town. She stocks more than 100 zines, local art and a good selection of used, cheap books that lean toward Spanish-language and Latin American literature and history. She also offers recent releases, such as Miriam Pawel’s “The Browns of California.”

But the centerpiece of LibroMobile remains its original manifestation: a converted planter cart where readers can find $1 specials and that Garcia moves around town for community events.

“My friend was explaining how to garden herbs and organic veggies” off of it one day, the 44-year-old cracks. “Meanwhile, I was envisioning a bookmobile and planting books in gente’s [people’s] hands.”

Her initial idea was to just set up the LibroMobile cart on street corners, a la food vendors. But she quickly discovered that Santa Ana prohibited street peddling, so Garcia started looking for a more permanent venue. She found one in 2017 in, of all places, a staircase in downtown Santa Ana, a historic Latino shopping district currently in the throes of gentrification. Garcia built a couple of shelves, but stacked the majority of her collection on the stair steps, inviting in the curious.

The planter cart that served as the first version of Sarah Rafael Garcia’s LibroMobile.JOHN GILHOOLEY
The planter cart that served as the first version of Sarah Rafael Garcia’s LibroMobile.

At first, Garcia leaned on writer friends and publishing companies for free books. But as word spread around, strangers came with crates of donations: rare Chicano studies texts, sports books and too many Bibles.

LibroMobile became so successful that with the help of Newport Beach-based nonprofit Community Engagement, Garcia secured her current location last January. In addition to holding author events and open-mic nights, it’s become a community hub. Retired Mexican men swing by to drink the cafe de olla (cinnamon-laced coffee) that Garcia offers in exchange for a donation. Working-class folks visit to talk about the poetry they want to write, about their loved ones who face deportation, about books they read to their children.

Garcia has long worked in literature and is getting ready to publish a feminist short story collection. Besides her own work, she started Barrio Writers, a program that offers summer writing workshops for at-risk teens and has 10 chapters across California and Texas. Garcia also has organized writing groups for women of color — all part of her effort to offer access to Latino literature that she didn’t have growing up in Orange County during the 1980s.

“It’s important our culture, languages and political issues have visibility,” Garcia says. “Not only in books, but in daily conversation.”

Some of the periodicals available at the LibroMobile.JOHN GILHOOLEY
Some of the periodicals available at the LibroMobile.

Garcia eventually wants to turn LibroMobile into a worker’s co-op, citing similar bookstores like Monkeywrench in Austin and Red Emma’s in Baltimore. But Garcia also is proud of her reputation as Latino OC’s Cassandra, someone who calls out uncomfortable truths about businesses and prominent people, damn the repercussions. Recently she wasn’t shy about letting people know that a former Orange County labor boss who had been fired over allegations of sexual harassment was a partner in a nearby restaurant. The eatery severed its ties with him.

“There have been plenty of times in my life where I let others keep me silent because of my race and gender — sometimes I remained silent to gain approval from those I thought would in return support me in the long run,” Garcia says. “But with the recent #MeToo movement and local changes and conflicts involving gentrification, I’ve gained a new perspective.”

Garcia is in her store most days, along with a small staff that includes her husband, a University of Texas doctoral candidate in sociocultural anthropology. But she still has dreams of putting the original cart back on the street on a regular basis.

“With the recent news regarding Governor Brown signing the bill that legalizes street vending in California,” she says with a smile, “I hope there’s a loophole for LibroMobile, too.”