If someone hadn’t been to the Pomona Arts Colony in a couple of decades, they might be pleased to see that Cafe con Libros was still in business, albeit in an unfamiliar location. And that Adelaida “Adi” Bautista and Patricia “Pati” DeRobles remained as owners.
In fact, the bookstore and meeting spot, which opened in 1997, closed in 2002. Last fall, after an absence of 15 years, the business returned, as if it had never gone away.
I’m one of those who remembers the original, although from a distance, as I never stepped inside. Still, when the name Cafe con Libros suddenly appeared last summer on the exterior of the former Futures Collide vintage furniture store, it was like a blast from the past. The store opened in October and has been establishing itself anew.
“There are people who think we’re new, and people who remembered the original bookstore,” DeRobles said.
Cafe con Libros was the brainchild of Bautista and DeRobles, who met as students at the University of La Verne. They connected as Mexican-American immigrants, first-generation college students and women studying to become teachers.
A few years later, their lives took a turn during a conversation with their friend Vern Mascorro. He had opened Postal Xtra in the fledgling Arts Colony, the portion of downtown west of Garey Avenue whose newly renovated buildings were now home to artist lofts, live-work spaces and galleries.
Mascorro asked them: “If you could open a business, what would it be?” A bookstore, they decided. “Then why don’t you?” he challenged them.
Inspired, the pair rented space on Main Street between George Cuttress’ frame shop and the dA Center for the Arts, sharing a loft and opening their bookstore below. They took its name from the bookstore in the Robert Rodriguez movie “El Mariachi.” It’s a play on cafe con leche, coffee with milk. They made it Cafe con Libros, coffee with books.
Coffee, however, was not a strong component. “We’re not really coffee people,” Bautista said. They sold coffee beans and had an urn of black coffee for events.
The focus was on books by and about women and children of color. “We were told there was no market for that. Well, we’re the market for that,” DeRobles said.
Cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz and the performance troupe Culture Clash were guests. A lesbian Latina group needing a safe space met there. Reading time for children was incorporated. Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panther minister of information who lived out his last months downtown, was a fixture.
The pair had one employee and helpful friends who filled in while they worked their day jobs. Bautista moved on, while DeRobles relocated the space to the corner of Third and Thomas streets before deciding to pack it in when her third child was born.
The two remained friends and kept in touch. DeRobles said her children often brought up the store and asked when it was coming back. “Sometimes things live long in your imagination,” she said.
Last Mother’s Day, she was showing her children the two previous locations for Cafe con Libros when she noticed the original had a “for lease” sign. She texted Bautista and asked if she’d be game for relaunching the store. She was.
They met with friends to brainstorm ideas and narrow them into a vision of a social space, lending library and bookstore. One motivation for returning was to push back against their personal feelings of helplessness as immigrants. In Bautista’s words, “How do we maintain our sanity and our dignity in this political environment?”
Ultimately they opted for a space at 280 W. 2nd St. around the corner from their first spot, one with hardwood floors and exposed brick walls. (Bautista notes that the store has been located on three sides of the same square block.) They decorated with donated and reclaimed furniture and interior and exterior murals by Edmar Orozco.
Cafe con Libros is different this time. “We thought we might be more sustainable as a nonprofit,” DeRobles said. A board of directors helps meet the rent. Letting go of the profit motive has sharpened the mission. “We’re more intentional about our work in the community,” DeRobles said.
New and used books are up front, most by writers of color, but also including the Hunger Games trilogy. The store also has T-shirts, posters and crafts with Frida Kahlo and Selena imagery and consignment jewelry.
“People who walk in, their first question is: ‘What is this? Is it a library, a bookstore, an art gallery?’” DeRobles recounted.
“Four or five people a day come in and ask for coffee,” Bautista added. They now have a table with bags of coffee for sale. “We’re still working on the ‘cafe’ part,” she said.
Cafe con Libros isn’t really about selling things or making money — which may prove to be a problem. The pair are trying to provide an inviting space for open-mic nights, writing workshops, clubs and other events, and simply face to face contact. “It’s a very Mexican thing, to be welcoming,” DeRobles said.
They also want to increase access to books, an anchor in both their lives and a counterpoint to an electronic society. “Anyone who walks in can walk out with a book, whether they buy it or borrow it,” Bautista said.
When I visited Wednesday, a half-dozen young people were using the plush, well-worn sofas and chairs as they worked on laptops or chatted.
“If you want to host an event here, they encourage it,” said Mirabel Escobedo, 23, who meets high school students there for mentoring. “The environment is very peaceful and calm.”
Her friend Selena Pacheco, 23, called it one of downtown’s “places of thought,” like the dA and Mi Cafecito. “People really want places like this,” she said. “It’s also great that it’s centered on Latino culture.”
Arts Colony developer Ed Tessier told me later that he’s fond of both Bautista and DeRobles and happy about Cafe con Libros’ return. “It feels like a family reunion,” he said. “They really helped define the character of the neighborhood. It’s great to have them back and exciting to see all the collaborations they’re working on.”
Most of the labor is by volunteers, some of them board members. DeRobles said she and Bautista don’t consider the store theirs but rather are trying to encourage volunteers to take spiritual ownership of it.
One reason is time: Bautista, 47, is a speech pathologist in Downey and DeRobles, 48, is an assistant principal in Riverside. Another is that younger people have good ideas and may be able to keep the store going into the future.
“They have energy,” DeRobles said. “They have social media savvy,” Bautista chimed in. With a self-deprecating chuckle, DeRobles added, “They have more brain cells.”
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, killing brain cells. Email email@example.com, phone 909-483-9339, visit insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook, follow @davidallen909 on Twitter and buy “Getting Started” and “Pomona A to Z.”