Posted by: Sarah | January 7, 2010

A Gem in the desert

In a time when book bloggers, publishers, authors and critics are developing deep crow’s feet and frown lines at low book sales, foreclosing booksellers, and the rise of the eBook, it was with pure delight that I accidentally wandered into a little shop tucked away in the Placita Santa Fe Marketplace in El Paso. Gem’s Gems: Five Free Books.

The iron “Five Free Books” sign was what caught my eye. Intriguing. Both the message and its display. It wasn’t some sale of the week or an inventory clearance. The sign was permanent, hanging from a street post like a 19th century cobbler’s shop in merry ol’ London. Something of Dickens lore. It stuck out from the tumbleweed and wagon themes of West Texas. So of course I had to investigate.

Immediately upon entering, I knew this was no typical bookstore. It was a far cry from the Indie booksellers with their cozy couches and fair trade coffees, and even farther from Barnes & Noble splendor. The place was comprised of two Spartan rooms lined with aluminum shelves and thousands of scuffed, earmarked and worn books. Used books. Deliciously used books. Books that had been read over and over until their pages were tissue thin and covers, soft as shoes soles.

“Hi, how’re ya?” said a man lounging at the far end of the room. “You been here before?”

I hadn’t.

“Well, this is how it works, kids books and paperbacks are twenty-five cents. Adult hardbacks are a dollar. Money goes to Gem’s Gems.”

“Gem’s Gems?” I asked, and oh, boy, was he ready to give me the scoop.

Apparently, Gem’s Gems is an El Paso nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of literacy in area children. The first GEM stands for Grace Elizabeth Madriles and her GEMs are Great Educational Materials= Gem’s Gems. Grace was a 16-year-old El Paso student who died in a car accident in 2002. The organization was formed in honor of Grace’s love of books and spirit of giving. Since its inception, over 400,000 new and used books have been delivered to local teachers, day care centers and area children organizations. New books are provided by First Book, National Book Bank and publishers like Scholastic, Red Brick, etc., and used books are donated by individuals and businesses throughout the city.

Well, I’ll be. The whole place left me awestruck and bleary-eyed. Out of all the ways a life could be remembered and Grace’s family chose this—books. Stories. The indelible literary experience.

As I ran my hand over spines and flipped through pages, I swear I felt magic. Little zip-zaps of pleasure. The place was something special—something unparalleled in all my bookstore encounters. eBooks be damned! Shops like Gem’s Gems prove beyond a shadow of doubt that people need literature. The tangible, hold-in-the-palm-of-your-hand kind. They need to pass books on and share them with others. These bundles of paper bound with thread and glue mean something. No matter what the book sales register on their little $$ tickers, nothing could measure the impact of one quiet champion of literacy in the middle of a desert town.

I have a feeling there are thousands of little gems like this throughout the country. Independent booksellers and nonprofits and, yes, even some mainstream mega-bookstores that say, “Long live the paper book! Long live the ability of every man of every age to get their hands on a story!”

There’s magic in that—the power to equally enjoy the written word no matter your station in life. It’s physical and present. It’s an intrinsic connection that I don’t believe you can get through the cursory digital world with its price tag of $200 (Sony Reader cost) and a low battery away from vanishing. At Gem’s Gems, if you got a quarter, you got a book to take home. For keeps.

My first visit to Gem’s Gems was in early December. I bought a handful of Christmas presents there. Yesterday, I went back and found the door locked, a paper announcement taped to the front. My heart sank. Then I looked closer: “Please come to our bigger & better location! Open mid-January.” My faith was renewed and amplified. I patted the marker printed words on the page. Yes, indeed, bigger and better. Obviously others in my community share my sentiments.

Yours truly, Sarah

P.S. If you’re in the area, check out the new Gem’s Gems at 7744 North Loop, El Paso.



  1. What a gem of a blog!

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