"Books saved my life," said author Luis J. Rodriguez in a recent interview. The 47-year-old author is a former Los Angeles gang member whose love and talent for poetry and prose convinced a judge to give Rodriguez a crucial break 26 years ago when he placed him, not back in prison, but on the road to a writer's life.
Eventually a newspaper job took Rodriguez to Chicago. There, he started his own poetry publishing house and wrote the award-winning 1994 memoir, Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (Touchstone Books).
In 2000, Rodriguez and his L.A.-born wife moved back to Southern California to live near her family in the San Fernando Valley. But the author found something crucial missing there.
"As soon as we came out here," said Rodriguez, "people were expressing that in this part of the Valley--this is the northern most section, which has some 400,000 people, 80 percent Latino population--there were no bookstores, no movie houses, no real culture centers."
Even in the very poor community where he'd lived in Chicago, Rodriguez said, "We still had places where people could do poetry and music and go to workshops. I thought it was strange that in the entertainment capital of the world, there was a whole community here that didn't have anything like that.
"From Sylmar, people had to go to Burbank or Northridge--20 minutes and two freeways away--just to get to a Barnes & Noble or a Borders. A lot of people from this area of the Valley go to those places and spend money there; but there was nobody saying, 'Why don't you stay in your community, and have the bookstores and coffee shops and galleries that you should have.' I was like, 'Wow, we should do something.'"
Cultural relief did not seem in the offing from the usual corporate suspects. "A developer friend of mine here tried to bring a Barnes & Noble into this area," Rodriguez said, "and they just flat-out said they wouldn't do it; it didn't have the demographics. I don't know what their criteria were, but obviously--80 percent Latino, no college-educated group, no [high] income level--I'm sure it didn't meet their requirements. Of course my attitude is, this is precisely the community that needs a bookstore."
Rodriguez had in mind a multi-purpose space to combine bookselling, art shows, workshops, and social interaction between generations. "We went and talked to a lot of kids and teachers in a lot of communities," he said, "and asked, if there was a place like this, would they be interested? And everywhere they said, 'Of course. That's what we need. We have the taco stands, and the fast-food places, and the video stores; but we don't have any intellectual, aesthetic, or cultural venues that every community needs.' So, some of the vision was shared; and then we decided to see what we could do to make it happen."
Rodriguez, his wife, and her brother became partners in the proposed venture. A grant from the Liberty Hill Foundation enabled them to get needed legal and business help. In December 2001, Tia Chucha's Cafe Cultural, in Sylmar, California, had its soft opening.
The business (at 12737 Glenoaks Boulevard) has less than 2,400 square feet, but Rodriguez and company have made the most of it. "We have two areas in which we're going to do poetry and readings as well as children's storytelling," the author-bookseller said. "There are chairs and tables, of course. Moveable bookshelves. A children's book section. A major gallery space, as well as all the other walls available for paintings. We have workshop areas, and there's a four-station computer center that we're going to get going. And a full coffee bar! So we've packed a lot into 2,400 square feet."
The store's stock is "minimal" for now, said Rodriguez ("We're just trying to get our credit going"), but in time Tia Chucha intends to fill its shelves with titles (in English and Spanish) by authors such as Carlos Fuentes, Laura Esquivel, Denise Chavez, Isabel Allende, and Pablo Neruda; as well as with children's picture and story books.
Tia Chucha, it's planned, will host author readings and signings; a regular poetry and spoken-word night; and workshops on writing, computers, airbrushing, and silk-screening. Rodriguez hopes to have something happening almost every night Tia Chucha is open: "Some evenings we'll just have musicians come here and play," he said.
For now, Tia Chucha is open five afternoons and evenings a week (closed Mondays and Tuesdays). A December article in the Los Angeles Times stirred interest and brought visitors to Tia Chucha from such distant and diverse places as the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County. "Interest was piqued all over," Rodriguez said. "People were amazed that there's any place like this."
Though Rodriguez and his partners didn't launch Tia Chucha mainly to make money--"We saw it," he said, "as something that was needed, to help educate the community on the need for books, as well as computers"--they do expect it will become profitable. "I think it fills a big void in the community," said Rodriguez, "and I think that's going to happen."
However successful Tia Chucha becomes, though, Rodriguez will not stop creating the sort of work his bookstore intends to sell. "Writing is really what I do," he said.
Recently, Seven Stories Press published the author's nonfiction book, Hearts and Hands: Making Peace in a Violent Time, to fine reviews. This spring, HarperCollins will bring out Rodriguez's fiction collection The Republic of East L.A.: Stories.
"Whatever else I'm doing," said the very busy Rodriguez, "it's not going to take away from the fact that I have many books and poems and writing projects to finish."