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Libélula Books & Co. Creates a Safe Space for Literacy and Arts Education

Co-owners Jesi Gutierrez and Celi Hernandez share how they brought their vision to life
Ariana Drehsler

By Christine Pasalo

Libelula Books - exterior

Libelula Books – exterior

Ariana Drehsler

Early one morning last May, Celi Hernandez and Jesi Gutierrez stood in the space they’d just leased for Libélula Books & Co. With a pen and a piece of cardboard, Gutierrez drew their vision for the north and southwest walls of their Barrio Logan bookstore: floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that the couple would eventually design and build themselves.

“We brought it to life from a sketch,” says Hernandez. Days later, they drove from Mexico to San Francisco, making stops to collect gently used books from friends and family to sell alongside new books, vintage items, and Gutierrez’s personal collection at the shop’s June 2021 opening. What they curated features a range of intersectional voices and stories. Within that setting, Libélula Books & Co. has thrived as a community hangout and a center of literacy and arts education.

“The representation of the books is the peak point of our space,” says Gutierrez, an art integration educator and queer Latinx artist whose pronouns are they/them. Central to their and Hernandez’s plan is to uplift authors and artists who are women or femme, of color, and/or LGBTQ. “I really do believe that space, just like human beings, has an identity. If we call that out and acknowledge it, it creates an open door for everyone who aligns to come in.”

Opening a bookstore had been a longtime dream for Gutierrez; they have a degree in bookmaking and once worked at the defunct Upstart Crow Bookstore in Seaport Village. Hernandez even says that Gutierrez’s mom describes them as someone born with a book in their hands. The couple shared their idea with family and with their support—especially that of Gutierrez’s older sister—they got to work.

“We wanted this shop to be influenced by our passions, which are obviously books and art, but also logistically where we’ve been, especially growing up Chicana,” says Hernandez.

The couple called the store Libélula (Spanish for “dragonfly”) to connect with their ancestors. Gutierrez grew up hearing their grandmother talk about turix, the Yucatec Maya word for libélula.

“She used to say that if you see one, it means the world is open to you; your dreams are available,” Gutierrez says. The two also chose the term because of its root meaning. “Libélula means ‘impossible creature.’ We are an impossible creature.”

Libelula Books - interior

Libelula Books – interior

Ariana Drehsler

The shop’s Instagram profile describes it as “felonista owned” because, as a young adult, Hernandez was charged with aiding and abetting in relation to a substance that has since become legal. Gutierrez experienced houselessness growing up and has relatives who’ve spent time incarcerated.

As the two continue to navigate barriers associated with these experiences, Hernandez maintains a flourishing career in the specialty coffee industry, Gutierrez is an educator with multiple degrees, and together they own a business.

Since opening last summer, Libélula has hosted author spotlights, children’s book readings, workshops for youth, and tutoring services. This year, they hope to launch a paid internship, offer art programming that supports incarcerated youth and adults, and host drag and queer reading events. It’s a place of rest and nurturing, for the community today as well as for the owners’ younger selves. “It’s super healing for little Jesi to be the validator of space,” Gutierrez says. “I’m always talking about little Jesi because, every day, I’m trying to show up for them.”

Hernandez adds: “Because wouldn’t it have been special to see people like us back then?”

950 South 26th Street, Barrio Logan

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