Salt of the Earth Books
Author’s Note: One of my favorite independent bookstores is now closed. To get a taste for why, and to find out what has been happening in publishing over the last ten years, read my articles, "Mergers & Acquisitions Aftershocks" and "Big Box Advances."
The legendary Rio Grande slices down the middle of New Mexico, past the Sangre de Cristo and Sandia mountain ranges. Along the Rio Grande Valley, nourished by the system of canals called acequias, are uneven-walled adobe pueblos: Pilar, Abiquiu, Velade, names that ring with the history of the Southwest.
Down the river, almost halfway through the state, past Taos and Santa Fe, is Albuquerque. Unlike those two coffeetable-book chic towns, Albuquerque is desert grit. Bigger and tougher, it is the center for the land of Enchantment’s leading industry: defense. The city’s number one and number two employers are the Sandia Corporation, a research-and-development facility where the tools of Armageddon are devised, and the University of New Mexico, which supports much of that research.
Booksellers being a notoriously liberal lot, it is somewhat ironic that it is the presence of these two entities—both Sandia and UNM buy enormous quantities of books—that makes Albuquerque a bookseller’s town. There are at least 15 independent bookstores here. All seem to thrive with out treading on each other’s toes. General independents include the Living Batch, Cantwell’s, Page One, Book Fare, and a Little Professor. In addition, there is a shop specializing in metaphysics, one whose focus is cookbooks and travel books, several that specialize in children’s books, a women’s bookstore and various computer and electronics book specialists. One of the largest and best known is Salt of the Earth, a general bookstore that, over the last 14 years, has championed the fiction and nonfiction of Chicano, Native American and Latin American writers.
According to John Randall, owner of Salt of the Earth, it is Albuquerque’s rich multicultural presence that gives the city as well as his store a distinct literary identity.
“The whole Rio Grande Valley has a much deeper, more intense Hispanic history than anywhere in the Southwest, even compared to Texas and Arizona and California,” he says. “It’s continued pretty well unbroken for at least 400 years. Forty percent of the population here has Hispanic surnames. The legislature has been mainly Hispanic ever since New Mexico was a state. There are Indian pueblos all around Albuquerque and up and down the Rio Grande Valley and a lot of the Indians work and live here. Albuquerque is as influenced by that, or more so, than any Southwestern city.”
In the early part of this century, Taos and Santa Fe became cultural Meccas for East Coast literati fascinated by New Mexico’s Indian and Spanish culture. Albuquerque, on the other hand, never quite made it as a bona fide art colony. But the societal and cultural ferment of the 1960s saw a Chicano literary renaissance—if not centered in Albuquerque, then certainly receiving tremendous impetus from the city’s concentration of Nuevos Mexicanos, the indigenous Hispanic population. In contrast to the close-knit literary scene that developed over a period of decades in Santa Fe and Taos, the Albuquerque scene focused on the contemporary realities of the Hispanic-Anglo-Indian tri-culture.
One of the most important sources of inspiration to many of the Chicano writers emerging during this period were the cuentos, the old Southwest Hispanic folktales that were part of an oral tradition for generations of Chicanos. As the magical realism of the cuentos was translated, they breathed life into a new genre of fiction writing. Rudolfo Anaya, who grew up in Albuquerque and teaches in UNM’s English department, led the way with Bless Me, Ultima, considered by many to be the first great Chicano novel. Other Albuquerque writers and poets followed: Tony Mares, Tobias Duran, Cecilio Garcia-Camarillo and Jimmy Santiago Baca, a protégé of Anaya. Recently, there has been a “second blossoming,” Randall says, as the work of Chicanas and Native American women writers, including Denise Chavez, Luci Tapahonso, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Cisneros, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Joy Harjo explodes onto the Chicano literary landscape. Randall considers it his store’s mission to nurture this movement.
Randall, who was born far from the Southwestern gestalt—White Plains, NY—has lived in Albuquerque nearly all his life. He assimilated the local Anglo-Hispanic culture in large part by attending public schools. Meanwhile, in the summer, Randall’s parents—his father was a music teacher, his mother a Spanish-language translator—took the family on jaunts through South America via freighter. He became fluent in Spanish. At the University of New Mexico, he studied anthropology. Later, while doing fieldwork in Ecuador on a Fulbright Scholarship, he became politicized.
“As I was going around studying the people in this community [in Ecuador], it became evident to me that the information I was gathering in no way was under the control of the people about whom I was writing. But that’s the way anthropological field work is done,” he says. “You go into a community, befriend the people who live there and over a period of time ask them a lot of questions about some aspect of the life of that community. Then something gets published in another country and is used in any number of ways, without the permission or approval of the people who were used in the study. Usually those people don’t even get a copy of what was published. It’s a form of censorship. At the very least, I consider it an invasion of privacy.”
Randall returned to a teaching assistantship in the anthropology department at UNM, but after his experience in Ecuador he became disenchanted with anthropology and left academia. In 1976, when asked by two friends—“who knew nothing about bookselling—and neither did I”—if he would help them launch a bookstore, he agreed. He soon discovered that bookselling was the form his political work would take.
“It has to do with the free flow of ideas and access to information,” he says of his bookselling philosophy. And he believes what he is doing now is more attuned to the spirit of anthropology than with his experience of its practice. “The store is based on getting out to the community, working with them, having them come into the store, and learning what titles to carry based on their interests.”
Salt of the Earth was chosen as the name of the bookstore after the film made in 1954, for which producer Paul Jarrico, director Herbert Biberman and screenwriter Michael Wilson were blacklisted. "Salt of the Earth," about exploitation of Mexican workers and espousing a feminist viewpoint, was never exhibited in chain theaters. “Howard Hughes [onetime owner of RKO] wielded a lot of power and influence in Hollywood then, and he didn’t’ like its politics and blocked its distribution,” Randall says.
“The movie touches on various themes from New Mexico’s history, which is why we chose to name our store after it. That, and the fact that it was banned—another instance of censorship in this country.”
“We sell the video.”
Salt of the Earth is located in a 2600-square-foot space across the street from the university. Its location and proximity to UNM guaranteed plenty of foot traffic, but when a popular art film theater in the next block shut down, Salt of the Earth’s evening business, which accounted for 25% of total sales, virtually disappeared. Throughout 1988, the bookstore was hurting, until a fund-raising campaign was launched that culminated in a reading by Alice Walker. Over 1500 people came to the Albuquerque Convention Center and paid $10 each to hear Walker read from The Temple of My Familiar. On other dates, novelists Michael Dorris and Leslie Marmon Silko and poets Jimmy Santiago Baca and Sandra Cisneros gave readings. Admission was charged and a hat was passed. A mail campaign was launched. Within five months over $22,000 was raised, and Randall says that business is almost back to pre-crisis levels and still climbing.
The current title base is 17,000—down from an ideal of 22,000, but Randall expects to recover the balance of inventory by this Christmas. Literature is the strongest category, but the science and environment sections are extensive. Besides the store specialties—Southwestern and Latin American fiction and nonfiction and books dealing with various political and social issues—Salt of the Earth has all the categories of a general bookstore. Only 5% of the total inventory is in hardcover, but Randall still thinks that is too high for his store. “We’re a trade paperback store,” he says. In fact, 70% of his customer base is from the university and the surrounding neighborhoods.
Not surprisingly, Salt of the Earth is the place to go for Spanish-language books, including children’s titles. They represent 7% of the store’s business. This may not sound like a substantial amount, but the decision to carry the books grew out of the bookseller’s commitment to further the flow of information to all segments of the community.
“There are two Spanish-language newspapers, two Spanish-language TV stations and five Spanish-language radio stations in Albuquerque,” says Randall, “but none of the bookstores were selling Spanish-language books. We went around and asked why. They said, ‘Well, no one ever asks for Spanish-language books, so we don’t feel there’s a market out there.’ People had frequently come in the store and asked us for them, so we began to ask those people why they thought the other stores didn’t have them. They told us that they didn’t see the titles, so they never asked for them. It was a vicious cycle. Since we’ve been carrying them, however, it’s been a very consistent business.”
Randall makes the front list buying decisions and two other staff members handle the backlist. Randall estimates that he deals with about 650 publishers, and over 300 of those are small presses with whom he either places direct orders or works through a distributor—frequently William Gannon in Santa Fe or Gordon’s. When possible, he prefers to work with reps. “I really value them, not only for buying decisions but for learning about the book industry.”” Randall, too, has grown in his knowledge of bookselling. He is a member of the faculty of some of the ABA Bookseller Schools and a member of the ABA’s task force to increase minority participation in bookselling.
Chicano, Indian and Anglo writers have found a hospitable environment at Salt of the Earth for readings. Best-selling author and Albuquerque resident Tony Hillerman and John Nichols, who lives in Taos, also do readings. Salt of the Earth has been a stop on the book tours of Yevgeny Yevtuschenko, Larry McMurtry, Eduardo Galliano and Maya Angelou. Another writer who has appeared at Salt of the Earth is Randall’s sister, Margaret Randall, a poet, essayist, novelist and Marxist who lived in Latin America for 23 years and had been highly critical of U.S. foreign policy in her writings. She recently prevailed in a highly publicized, five-year legal struggle with the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service, which had tried to deport her for her politics.
Events are held in the store at least once a week and are frequently organized in conjunction with the university’s Institute for Latin American Studies, established in 1978 and now considered one of the foremost centers of its kind in the country. “They bring in authors, and we do book signings for them, and we bring in authors and arrange lecture there,” Randall says. Salt of the Earth also provides books to various Latin American and Chicano literature classes. Recently, Randall started publishing booklists of Chicano and Latin American fiction, nonfiction and poetry.
Salt of the Earth’s décor is as unpretentious as its name suggests: industrial carpeting, walls that could use a paint job, slightly mismatched fixtures and bare-bulb fluorescent lighting. High ceilings and an 80-foot-long front display window that gives the store an open, airy quality grace the space. Randall says, “We probably have more space than we need, but for events we clear out the whole middle of the store.” By moving fixtures around, a crowd of 150 and up, typical for a well-respected author, can be accommodated easily. Besides readings and books signings, Salt of the Earth has provided space to university groups for classes and seminars, and community groups like the Artistas Feministas, a group of politically outspoken Chicana artists and performers, regularly stage events at the store. A recent Frida Kahlo look-alike contest drew hundreds of Hispanic and Anglo women. Dia de los Muertos—the Mexican Day of the Dead—is an annual November 1 bookstore event.
Randall and his staff of seven full- and part-timers take the store on the road at least a half-dozen times a year to town festivals around the state. “There’ll be music and dancing and other cultural events, and we bring books that tie into the theme of the festival,” Randall says. Interestingly, the people in the outlying towns buy more books per capita than in urban areas. “They’re small communities, but the people buy more books,” Randall says.