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Tolstoy and a Haircut

How a barber became a bookseller and an evangelist for reading.

ON THE LIST OF MACARTHUR FOUNDATION "GENIUS" winners, Rueben Martinez, who won the award in 2004, is described as a “bookseller.” A better characterization might be “literary evangelist.” After all, when Martinez talks about his two eponymous bookstores, he doesn't mention sales quotas or expansion plans. Rather, he offers this aspiration: “to get the Latino community reading, and make sure our kids stay in school.”

That goal addresses a very real public need. Latinos are half as likely as non-Hispanic whites to read for pleasure, according to a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts study, and Latino students have the highest dropout rate of all ethnic groups. Martinez, the son of impoverished Mexican immigrants, understands the pressures many first and second generation Latinos face. Books can feel like a luxury, rather than a necessity, when you are struggling to put food on the table. At the same time, he's convinced literature can transform lives. “My whole life has been learning through reading,” he says.

Martinez wants other Latinos to adopt that personal gospel as their own. To that end, his librerías, whose inventory is about 85 percent Spanish-language, are community centers rather than pure commercial establishments. Tutoring and classes are offered three days a week. The shops organize book clubs; sometimes Martinez will surprise attendees by bringing in the author to chat about his or her work. The bookseller also often makes personal appeals to his customers, urging them to read to their children. “You have to start when they are young,” he explains. “Before they get to kindergarten.”

That entreaty is echoed weekly on Martinez's Univision television segment, where he suggests titles parents can introduce to their toddlers. His effort to get more Latinos reading is conducted behind the scenes, too. He recently partnered with Hudson Books to help the chain expand its offerings to Latinos. And Martinez has advised public officials in states from Illinois to Arkansas on how to keep their Latino populations from falling through the cracks.

His work is, in a sense, a way of giving back. “Because of books, I can have a conversation with anyone, even though I never went to college,” the 66-year-old says. Novels and nonfiction tomes helped him dream of a life far beyond the impoverished southwestern town where he grew up. Instead of following his Mexican immigrant parents into the copper mines of Arizona, he moved to California and supported himself as a barber. His haircutting business in Santa Ana, which he maintained for almost four decades, eventually became the site of his first bookstore.

“I Wasn't Crazy.” Martinez's early home life gave little hint that he would become a literary entrepreneur. Both of his parents worked long hours, and there were no books in his home. His grade school teachers introduced him to the wonders of literature. “I looked forward to Mondays, because they always had a new book waiting for me,” Martinez recalls. The encouragement he received in the classroom made up in part for a saturnine grandmother who lived with Martinez for most of his childhood and disapproved of what she perceived to be an overly dreamy disposition. “But I wasn't crazy,” Martinez says. “I had a vision.”

That vision first took him to Long Beach, CA. The only glimpse he had of the sea was through books; he longed to see it in person. “It was the most beautiful color,” he says. “I knew then I wasn't going back.”

Martinez's urge to break with his childhood extended beyond changing locales. One reason he became a barber was because the white smock seemed symbolically so far removed from a mining uniform. He started cutting hair in 1960, earning a salary that put three children through college. But reading remained Martinez's first love. His habit of lending out books, which were rarely returned, prompted one of his clients to ask why he didn't start selling them, instead of unintentionally giving them away. And so in 1993 the barber started phasing out his hair business and renamed the shop Librería Martinez Books & Art Gallery.

It was a small space, under 400 square feet, but it quickly developed a following in the community. Martinez says customers are generally lined up before the doors open at 10 a.m. The classes he offers on reading, writing, and art are oversubscribed. Authors Sandra Cisneros and Isabel Allende attracted crowds numbering in the thousands when they visited Librería Martinez.

Not a Quitter. But the popularity didn't make the bookstores lucrative. At one point, Martinez had to give up his apartment and live in his store to make ends meet. “If you want something badly, you have to work hard to keep it,” he reasons. “If I had closed up, do you think I would be working with the Hudson bookstores? Or that I would be asked to give speeches? They call people who don't give up. They don't call quitters.”

The most memorable of those calls came from the MacArthur Foundation two years ago. At first, Martinez thought he would leverage the grant — $500,000 over five years, no strings attached — to open more bookstores across the U.S. But the economics of tangling with industry giants led him to shelve those plans. His partnership with Hudson is something of an “if you can't beat them, change them from within” move. He hopes the big chains will employ more Spanish-speaking staff and stock more Spanish-language books. Even if he doesn't sell the books himself, Martinez figures, making other stores more Latino-friendly will promote his broader goal of boosting Latino readership.

Another vehicle in Martinez's literary crusade is the Latino Book and Family Festival, which he co-founded with the actor Edward James Olmos. The celebrity-studded event visits cities like Los Angeles and Houston and trumpets the importance of literacy. Mindful that his own introduction to books commenced in the classroom, Martinez has also advised school boards in cities as varied as Santa Ana and Chicago on the qualities they should look for in their school superintendents. Martinez is also doing some writing of his own: He's working on a memoir, a children's book, and a compilation of essays on the importance of reading.

In the midst of all this, Martinez still finds time to deliver commencement addresses. In his speeches to newly minted college graduates, he offers this advice: Choose a career that reflects your passions. “Find that profession, and you'll never work,” he explains. It would seem that Martinez, the barber-turned-reading evangelist, knows whereof he speaks.

Alexandra Starr writes for national magazines on social and educational issues. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Winter 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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