Twenty years ago, when Olivia De Leon and her husband left Jalisco, México, they were not seeking the American Dream. They were educated, spoke English, and lived in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara. The newly wed couple purchased two air tickets to the city by the bay, no coyote necessary.
Olivia’s belongings still smelled of Jalisco when she became a staff member at U.C. San Francisco. Decades later, she continues to work in the epidemiology
department organizing registration and lecture halls for graduate courses. Her marriage, however, failed and being far from home, she had few friends to turn to so she instead opened books, one after another.
“Literature helped me emotionally, ” she said recalling that time. Books became De Leon’s escape and the success of it reminded her of her childhood dream of opening a bookstore. When the opportunity to own a bookstore came about in her forties, she grabbed it.
Nowadays De Leon spends most of her weekends at her Spanish bookstore Nueva Libreria México at 2886 Mission Street. Crowded as it is between taquerias it’s not the size of your typical Barnes & Noble. A jail cell is a more apt comparison. But trapped inside the shelves is the literature that liberate minds: La Historia de México, Cien Años de Soledad, Don Quijote de la Mancha, crossword puzzles, cards for every occasion, dictionaries, atlases, and bibles.
De Leon doesn’t mind whether her Latino community reads tabloid magazines, classical novels, or sappy romances and in her selection she also includes People en Español, El Secreto del Éxito: Donald Trump, Huevos Verdes con Jamón or Green Eggs and Ham.
“What’s most important to me is that they read,” she says in Spanish.
Customers across the Bay Area visit her store for its rare selection of Mexican and Latin American literature, but also the other offerings.
Carla Gonzales, 28, a homemaker came in for the first time to the bookstore looking for an English work book and came out with a romance novel instead.
Gonzales said she likes the bookstore because, “It is very well organized, it has everything like romance novels or children books.” She added that she is likely to come back because Spanish bookstores are rare in her experience, she said.
Although many friends advised De Leon not to buy a business in the Mission, she defensively says “Al contrario!”
Since the recession began she said sales have gone down a bit but remain constant because English workbooks and citizenship cassettes always sell.
Other popular items are celebrity magazines and self-help books, a category of books De Leon knows well.
“When people come in and ask me what I recommended for health or depression or whatever, I always recommend them [self help books],” she said. “ Because that was a way that I improved myself.”
Rigoberto Hernandez Contributed to this story.