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Growing up, Jesi Gutierrez found refuge in books. Gutierrez would disappear into stories to escape the reality of being homeless, couch surfing and sometimes sleeping in a car with family.
Today, Gutierrez is still surrounded by books, not to get away, but to provide a similar refuge for others. Though modest and indiscreet in appearance, Libélula Books & Co., the bookstore Gutierrez co-owns with their partner, Celi Hernandez, in Barrio Logan, is having a big impact on the community.
The one-year-old bookstore located on South 26th Street inside a century-old building has not only become a hub for literacy and arts education that’s diverse and intersectional.
Gutierrez and Hernandez never imagined that their quaint little book shop would rapidly become a popular community hangout, but it has. On any given day of the week, people walk in and out of the shop. Young kids in the LGBTQ community have turned to the bookstore as a safe space, and on some occasions, their parents, too.
“We’ve had kids come in here and feel comfortable and be themselves,” Hernandez said. “We’ve had kids come out to us here in this space, and we’ve had parents seeking answers about their children coming out and wanting to know more through books.”
“I wish I had a space like this growing up,” Hernandez added.
Libélula is filled with publications one would be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the city. The maze of shelves that line the shop’s walls from top to bottom are overflowing with texts that cover an eclectic array of topics such as art, poetry, LGBTQ literature, graphic novels, feminism, grassroots organizing, and social justice-driven nonfiction works. Gutierrez and Hernandez have done their best to curate an inventory within the shop of various publications that feature an emphasis on Indigenous, Black, and Chicano history and narratives.
Diez Costa, who runs a book club at Libélula, said the ability for visitors to see themselves reflected in the books on the shelves and the people who run the space is significant. Costa is the co-leader of the San Diego LGBTQ Latine Coalition, a volunteer program of San Diego Pride that organizes events and performs outreach specifically to the Latine LGBTQ community.
“When you’re going to explore topics of your sexuality I think it’s very warming and welcoming to have someone of a similar identity greet you at the door,” Costa said.
Libélula is intersectional in a variety of other ways, particularly given its location in the historically Mexican-American neighborhood of Barrio Logan. The staff is bilingual and the shop is stocked with both Spanish and English titles for both bilingual and monolingual speakers alike.
“A lot of Latino book stores oftentimes only speak Spanish and they’re losing a whole demographic because a lot of people are Latino identifying but may not speak Spanish,” Costa said.
Gutierrez said the fact that the bookstore serves more as a community resource is not lost on them. The pair built a little free library at the shop where anyone can grab a free book, use free Wi-Fi and a communal laptop that neighborhood residents can use, and host peer tutoring at the shop.
“I’m so proud of all the parents, they come in really seeking information to better understand and how to show up for their kiddos that are maybe having questions about themselves, gender expression and about different aspects of their identity,” Gutierrez said.
Although owning a bookstore that also doubles as a community space wasn’t something that the co-owners set out to do originally, the pair decided to go for it and since then have organically responded to what best serves the needs of the community.
“We’re very intentional on serving the community,” Hernandez said, “We’re in Barrio Logan right down the street from Chicano Park, and here in the community you see Black and Brown people. We make sure we serve our community with subjects and titles on our shelves that are important and relevant.”
Since opening last summer, Libélula Books & Co. has hosted a variety of artist spotlights, author talks, poetry readings, class visits, small music shows, workshops and teach-ins. It’s not unusual to see both local and out-of-town authors, poets, and artists make surprise visits to the shop; guests have included authors and poets such as Beatrice Zamora, Bob Dominguez, Polaris Castillo, Matt Sedillo, among others.
Vianney Harelly, an artist and self-published author originally from Tijuana, who now resides in San Francisco, recently showcased her second book, “The Plants Are Burning,” at Libélula.
Harelly reached out to Libélula in hopes that the shop would carry her book and said she was immediately greeted with kindness and enthusiasm.
“It is so important to be able to find safe spaces where one can be vulnerable and creative in a society that encourages the opposite,” Harelly said. “It is especially important for any members of marginalized communities who are estranged from their families or mainstream society to find groups and places that remind them of how much they are loved, seen and heard. I have always said I write for myself but also for people like me. Bookstores have been my safe space and haven since I was a little girl.”
Great story! It’s extremely important to create communal places for people to come together. Very well written and I’m happy you showcased this incredible business.
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