When they were children, Jesi Gutierrez and their sisters and mother, dreamed of owning their very own bookstore and café. The oldest and most meticulous, Connie, would bookkeep, Gutierrez, the ‘psalmist,’ as their mother would say, would do the storytelling, and DeAnna, the youngest and ‘wild one,’ would create the flower arrangements that would adorn the store.
Though this remained a dream for a few decades, in June 2021, a year into the pandemic, and two months post-grad, it came to fruition (save for the café), when Gutierrez and their partner, Celi Hernandez, opened Libélula Books & Co., a Queer, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and Felonista (someone with a criminal history) owned bookstore in Barrio Logan, San Diego.
Housed behind a bright, yellow door attached to a 1920s iron and triangular building, the bookstore features floor-to-ceiling length bookshelves, art and greenery, knick-knacks that just belong, and that satisfying just-opened-a-book smell create an atmosphere that feels like one you’ve experienced before. Light fixtures and windows dangling from the ceiling and art that decorates the walls, along with everything else within the space, were installed by the two co-owners.
Guitierrez, a former teacher, said they wanted the bookstore to embody a space that was special to them. “I just wanted it to feel like my classrooms,” said Gutierrez. “I’ve had some experience with spaces and trying to make them feel comfortable and homey…I wanted it to feel like a big classroom. I sketched it out pretty loosely, and then my partner and I got to work.”
Nestled into corners and crevices of the store are vinyl and other cool items from the 80s and 90s that the two partners have accumulated. But what truly punctuates the nostalgia of a classroom is the bundles of toys, a decorative and interactive feature, that definitely heals the inner child of both the owners and guests.
Libélula is home to many books ranging from different themes, such as poetry, graphic novels, art, grassroots organizing, non-fiction, Queer texts, and more. And because the top priority of the owners is representation and accessibility in literature, all of the books are embedded with Chicanx, Indigenous, and Black history. Similar to a classroom, books are contained in sections, some titled “Humans Who Have All the Answers, the children’s section, and “Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies,” where you’ll find fiction.
Community is a core, if not the root, aspect of this small business, and it is depicted by a desk dedicated to displaying locally and self-published books, as well as highlighting local artists.
“That’s what’s been really cool about the space. It gives us the opportunity to commission local artists for a lot of things. Any income that comes in from the books, we then hire or buy from local artists, because we have a lot of artists that make things–earrings, jewelry, prints, bookmarks,” said Gutierrez.
Speaking of showcasing local art, and a library lover’s dream, a good friend of the owners created their bookshelf ladder completely out of recycled metal.
Through and through, Libélula is a group effort. What was once a space that only sold the used books that Gutierrez and Hernandez could get their hands on, with the help of friends and family, is now a bookstore that sells both new and used items.
“We made a big shout-out to all of our friends and family that said if they had any books that they wanted to donate, we’d be driving up and down the coast to grab them,” said Gutierrez. “We loaded up my truck, stopped at everyone’s house, put in as many books as we could, and that’s what we opened with.”
Shelves filled to the brim with books are not where Libélula stops giving. Gutierrez, a collector of typewriters and maker of jewelry, uses them to not only decorate, but are also for sale if d patrons take a liking to them. WI-FI, two community computers, and a free, outside library filled with books, clothing, and miscellaneous items, are additional offerings of the bookstore, but not the most impactful, according to Gutierrez.
“Kiddos come to hang out here after school, they come with their families, folks come with their partners, on dates, in community when we have open mics. It’s just getting to witness all these moments that are real, human, and in real life, three-dimensional. We get to connect. It’s really magical.”
The two owners not only get to connect with customers and avid book lovers, but members of the community get to bond with them, as well as find a temporary home in the space itself. Individuals can host their own events in the Barrio Logan bookstore by booking through their website, and can also participate in the monthly book club.
Libélula is a huge step in the right direction and represents Queer, BIPOC, and Felonista individuals–community members who are often left out of the conversation. And showcasing authors and genres that aren’t always highlighted is crucial, especially for younger generations.
“I taught in [Barrio Logan] for about eight years,” said Gutierrez. “My students all look like me, sound like me, and come from similar backgrounds. It’s important for us to not only show voices on our shelves that look like them and celebrate them but also let them know that we’re trying something that we don’t have a road map for. It’s very rare, and yet we’re still trying it.”
Showing up for each other in community is how small businesses like Libélula grow and what pushes for more representation of the underserved, and Gutierrez stresses the importance of emphasizing that as a business.
“It’s important for us to note [representation] on our platforms so that other community members that are doing radical, amazing things can reach out to us when they not only want to support us, but when they need something from us and vice versa. It’s really hard to find each other, especially when there are so few of us,” Guitierrez said.
A safe space for those incarcerated or formerly, Gutierrez and Hernandez make sure to also emphasize that the often forgotten community deserves an education, support, and access to information just as everyone else does.
And as Libélula and its community continue to grow, Gutierrez hopes to extend the childhood dream to more than just an attached coffee shop.
“We would love to open up a second space that offers up a lot more to other community organizing spaces like a workspace, a community collaborative workspace,” they said. “In the future, I would love to have a queer youth, either resource or housing, center.”
Regardless of the pushback or discouragement that went into running a bookstore, their trust in readers has never run deeper. And the most overwhelmingly beautiful part of Libélula, for the two co-owners and partners, has not only been the bumpy road they took to get to this point, but the multiple lives they’ve gotten the chance to witness.
“It’s been an interesting learning curve, but that’s what I love about the bookstore,” gushes Gutierrez. “We hope to be here for a really long time, but, at the end of the day, the amount of things that we’ve gotten to witness and learn in the space is just so beautiful.”
Libélula Books & Co. is located at 950 S 26th St, San Diego, CA 92113 and is open to the public Sunday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. To learn more about all Libélula has to offer, or to order books, you can visit their website or Instagram.