A Place for Books and Politics

By Kathy Nguyen

Some call it the democratic connection to Mexico. Others know it as a mecca for Spanish and Latin American literature. Providing both an outlet for political discourse and a valuable literary source for San Francisco's Latino community, La Casa del Libro bookstore has carved its niche in the City's Mission District.

Located on Valencia between 20th and 21st streets, the bookstore is somewhat removed from the busy stretch of Valencia at 16th, a.k.a. the new economic zone. Here, trendy fusion restaurants and tapas bars have transformed the area into one of the most popular destinations in the city. Among the crowded storefronts, La Casa del Libro stands out as a neighborhood bookstore catering to the Latino community. The store offers a wide range of books from Spain, Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, with 50 percent of its imports coming from Mexico.

Like most independent bookstores, La Casa del Libro reflects the needs of the local community. The store's owner, Nerissa Moran, has been in the book industry for more than 20 years. She came to San Francisco from the East Coast in 1970.

"At that time, there was no real outlet for Spanish books, and certain kinds of information just weren't available to the Latino community," says Moran, a passionate political activist devoted to liberal causes.

During the 1960s, Moran helped organize factory and farm workers both on the East Coast and in California. After coming to San Francisco, she began working at Bookworks in the Mission District. Moran says that people used to come in and ask for Spanish-language books, but Bookworks didn't carry any at the time, so she began importing them for the store. After Bookworks closed, Moran found a way to continue meeting her customers' demands for Spanish books. In 1983, she started her own importing business in the basement of her home. Since then, she has distributed books to stores in the Mission, including Libreriá Mexico and Modern Times Bookstore, and around the country. In 1994, Moran moved her wholesale operation to its present location on Valencia, combining a retail outlet with the warm feeling of a neighborhood bookstore.

A long-time resident of San Francisco, Moran is committed to serving the local community. "A major factor for me is getting literature into the Latino community. Not just literary works, but also survival material, such as books to help people learn English, find a job, get health care and other basic necessities," she says.

Being in a prime location, however, has its drawbacks. Moran rents the space on Valencia and says she regrets not negotiating a 10-year lease. "When the rent gets too high, I'll have to find a wholesale location in SOMA or Oakland," she says.

High rent isn't the only problem. Like other small, independently owned businesses, Moran is feeling the heat from megastore chains.

"The chains and Internet corporations in general, have created a hostile environment for small businesses," says Moran. "I know they don't have the depth and breadth of selection that we have. I think the next generation coming along will have to learn to deal with the chain stores. It will really be a shame if independent bookstores aren't around anymore."

But in the meantime, Moran is doing her best to maintain her bookstore, which does 80 percent of its business in wholesale distribution.

Moran has given La Casa del Libro a Mexican-inspired look that is comfortable and inviting. Inside, the wood floors are painted a dark, earthy green, with peach-colored walls displaying photographs of Latin American authors. Every available space in the tiny bookstore, from the floor to the ceiling, is crammed with books. The a wide array of magazines and newspapers in the window invites passers-by to come in and browse. Here you'll find magazines like arte fotográfico, helicópiero, Proceso, Pocho!, Epoca, Quehacer Politico, Mecanica Popular, Cosmopolitan, People and PC Computing (in Spanish). Democratic newspapers include Prensa Libre, Excelsior, La Jornada and El Comercio.

The store's book selection is wide-ranging: Latin American history, modern history, Mexican culture, politics, sociology, critical studies, gay and lesbian literature and movements, classic literature, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, mystery, romance, popular translations, bilingual books, cookbooks, language books, teaching manuals and more. There are separate sections for psychology, health, alternative medicine, spirituality, astrology, religion, humor and biography.

La Casa del Libro also offers an outstanding selection of children's books, including several picture book series and atlases from Atlantida, Albatross, Susaeta and Harcourt Brace. The store's extensive literary collection features works by Isabelle Allende, Jorge Amado, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, and more. You'll also find books by Gunter Grass, Henry Miller and John Steinbeck, among others, in Spanish translation. Whether you're looking for a literary classic, want to learn more about the Chiapas or would like to find a book to teach children about Pueblo Indian culture, you'll find it all here. The store also carries music CDs and tapes by Spanish and Latin American artists.

If you're interested in what the Mission District has to offer besides the restaurant and bar scene, stop in at this neighborhood bookstore. And if you're lucky, you might even catch a poetry reading by an up-and-coming Latin American author.