Rueben Martinez is a genius, and he has the grant to prove it. Last year, he became the first bookseller to receive one of those $500,000 fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation that have come to be called “genius grants.” The selection committee lauded Martinez for “fusing the roles of marketplace and community center to inspire appreciation of literature and preserve Latino literary heritage.” All of that is certainly true, but that’s not why we love Martinez. We love him because he exhibits the improvisational flair and versatility that is innate to master entrepreneurs.
Martinez’s business, Libreria Martinez Books and Art Galleries, began its life as a small shelf in a barber shop in Santa Ana, Calif. For years, Martinez, a barber and the son of Mexican copper miners, lent copies of books like Juan Rulfo’s El Llano en llamas to his customers. Eventually, he started selling books by Latino writers. By 1993, the book business had so outgrown its shelf that Martinez decided to put down his shears and turn the shop into a bookstore. He began hosting readings and community events, and Libreria Martinez was soon thronged with people. Martinez was fast becoming a leading advocate of literacy and cultural education in the Latino community. From 1997 until 2001, he partnered with actor Edward James Olmos to establish the Latino Book and Family Festival. It has since become the country’s largest Spanish-language book exposition, now held regularly in four states. (You’ve got to love a guy who teams up with Lt. Martin Castillo of Miami Vice.)
Martinez, who left the festival to focus on his business, has three stores in California now, including one that focuses on children’s books. Combined, they generate nearly $1 million in annual sales. He would like to have as many as 25 locations by 2012. “The plan is that if a new store meets its goals, we’ll open another,” he says. And though business is booming, Martinez, who is now 65, still likes to make time to cut hair for some of his longtime customers. “If I cut one or two haircuts a month, I’m in heaven,” he says. Of course, while he trims away, he also recommends a couple of good reads.
Jeffrey L. Seglin