People go in and out of the nearby Altamira subway station, and they walk in different directions with a purpose. Mornings and afternoons are beset by traffic, the minutes drowned by the sound of horns and angry shouts from drivers and motorizados. This is the southeast corner of the emblematic Plaza Atlamira, the home of Lugar Común, a little bookstore founded in 2012 by a group of young, assiduous book-lovers who also owned a small publishing firm.
Inside, music plays, mostly in English, at low volume, fostering a cozy and refined environment. From the small tables right beside the glass walls, the obelisk from the square keeps guard. In the background is the imposing Ávila mountain. It’s the heart of eastern Caracas.
The number of clients decreased during the first two months of protests, but struggling to keep the book-selling business alive is nothing new to these folks.
“There’s not a lot of interest or money in it, so I think book culture is one of the last things that is considered, if at all, in the national budget,” said Rebeca Perez Gerónimo, member of the staff and a recent literature graduate from Universidad Central de Venezuela.
Yet Rodrigo Blanco Calderon, author, contributor to Prodavinci, and co-founder of Lugar Común said that they were aware of the problems to come before even thinking of opening the bookstore. “We opened when lots of libraries were closing in Caracas, when the recession and the editorial crisis were already underway… Por Locos,” he says.
Blanco Calderon is an award-winning author known for playing with language and with the organization of the narrative. He says his favorite Venezuelan writers-Francisco Massiani, Romulo Gallegos and Ramos Sucre in poetry- have been an inspiration to his usually brief fiction creations. On the table where he sits, covered by a pile of books from which some client was probably choosing earlier, lies one of his recent publications, a collection of 6 short stories titled Las Rayas. He spots it nonchalantly and continues: “only the best Venezuelan authors are published by our house, and that’s why our three-person editorial team chooses them.” He looks up with a serious, not proud, expression.
On the other end of the small space, near the collection of Lugar Común’s publications, stands Perez Geronimo wearing a black dress, talking to other young clerks. Most of them are recent literature graduates like her. Perez’s short black hair decorates her girly smiling face. She talks rapidly but accurately. Their conversation is interrupted by clients to whom they eagerly recommend and describe books, guiding them through a world full of colorful titles.
Perez and Blanco Calderon agree that becoming a cultural nexus enterprise and emphasizing the role of the bookstore as a gathering place is what made Lugar Común relevant and distinct. “I think the concept didn’t exist as strongly as we are emphasizing it here, and it has been very well received” said Calderon.
“We host events, not only book presentations but also lectures. We have at least 5 events weekly. We have two rooms for classes” and Perez points upstairs. “Here people come and spend the day.” She nods toward a couple of men sitting on tables with coffee, choosing among tall piles of books or working on their ipads.
“They don’t always buy something but the fact that we offer a friendly environment, attracts more public, and ultimately translates to profits.” She smiled satisfied, bringing her hands together.
Booksellers are in crisis worldwide, of course, as the e-reader boom combines with declining overall readership. So bookstores have to reimagine themselves not only as businesses but also as spaces that contribute in some way to the life of the city. That’s the mission of Lugar Común.
Blanco Calderón said that there have been other extremely important literary ventures in Caracas.
“From what was the Suma Library in Sabana grande, which was a legendary space since the 60s and is now barely staying alive, to what was the Librería del Ateneo… Right now there are a few very beautiful projects like El Buscón, organized by Catina Hernández, and Kalathos.”
Kalathos is set inside an art center that features photography and architecture shows, picture galleries, flower shops, a restaurant and a coffee shop. The bookstore occupies a larger space than Lugar Común, and it includes an outdoor area where people sit for coffee. The smell of coffee predominates everywhere except in the back corner, where the smell of old used books smothers it. Wandering people are usually more interested in the bookstore’s interactive ambiance than in the careful selection of books it offers.
Sadly, in the last years many prominent bookstores have had to close in the city – the list of casualties includes Monte Avila, Ateneo de Caracas, Macondo, and Libroria. Blanco Calderon said that the government has provoked a total crisis of primary goods production. ¨They don’t produce the varieties and the amount of paper needed to satisfy the literary industry.¨
Publishing houses have to import paper to be able to print books, which has generated a process of lobbying between publishers and the government – something they are ill-equipped to handle. Now that foreign money is scarce, too, publishers aren’t able to import paper at all, so the production of books has been dramatically reduced.
“We have many books waiting to be printed not only because there’s no paper, but also because printers are damaged and it is imposible to find spare parts,” said Perez Geronimo.
“Inflation has also caused books to become luxury items where just one nationally produced book can cost you a fourth of a minimum wage,¨ Blanco Calderon says.
“But some of us are still moving. There’s people that still live off of books, and as long as that’s the case, the book culture will be kept alive…”