November 10, 2010

Libros Schmibros is taking lit to the streets in LA


Former head of the NEA’s “Big Read” program (and Melville House author) David Kipen has taken the loss of his government job in stride and has turned into a book-lending guerrilla.

In this Los Angeles Times profile of Kipen by Reed Johnson yesterday, we learned that Kipen’s store/DIY lending library Libros Schmibros is picking up the slack left by the shortened library hours caused by recent budget cuts. Kipen opened up shop in July just as those cuts–and the resultant abbreviated library schedule–went into effect.

In an ironic twist, Kipen was out of a job in January due to budget cuts to the Big Read program by the Obama Administration (this despite the fact that the budget for the NEA actually went up for 2010). The Big Read, you’ll recall, was a program devised by the National Endowment for the Arts to counter the shocking results in a literacy study it published in 2004 entitled “Reading at Risk.” Unfortunately for David, he might have done his job too well. Carolyn Kellogg interviewed Kipen in December of 2009 for the LA Times book blog Jacket Copy, and asked him what his greatest achievement was as the head of the Big Read, to which he responded by quoting House Report 111-316:

Since 2005, the NEA has awarded grants–leveraged with millions of private sector dollars–in every State and virtually every Congressional district in the United States. The NEA study, Reading on the Rise, released last year, documents a definitive increase in the number of American adults who read with the biggest increase in young adults aged 18-24. This new growth reverses two decades of downward trends cited in previous NEA reports. The conferees remain committed to the Big Read program and direct the NEA to report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations, no later than 60 days after enactment of this Act, with a detailed funding plan for the continuation of this popular and successful program.

But Washington’s loss is LA’s gain. Libros Schmibros has already become a cultural asset for the community. They sell books for up to $1.50 and lend books on a sliding time scale (“It doesn’t make sense to lend ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ for the same time that you lend out ‘Of Mice and Men,’ ” Reed quoted him as saying.) They have a reading series featuring local authors and screenwriting workshops. All of which the local city councilman, Jose Huizar, calls “a real godsend.”

“It was always a quixotic idea,” Kipen told Reed about the venture. “It just seemed like the barriers to entry for a library and a book-lending business would never be lower.”