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 bookstore also stands right in front of a battleground, a point of reference during February’s daily protests. As clashes between students and national guardsmen became increasingly violent, with riots starting on most days right in front of the bookstore at 3 o-clock, Lugar Común strived to make the space useful by inviting people to debate the topics of the day.
In between struggling to uphold safety and cleaning up the exterior decor to prevent protestors from using it to make barricades, they brought in leading figures to moderate discussions. People like Margarita Lopez Maya, Elias Pino Iturrieta, and Marino Alvarado rose above the tear gas and made their way to the bookstore. The small space got so full of people- sometimes there were between 150 and 200 people- that the overflow crowd had to stand outside.
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…”
10 thoughts on “The precarious reality of our book culture”
Looks like a great place.
If anyone has any thoughts on good contemporary Venezuelan fiction (as opposed to the official fiction), please share them.
1) Luibliana, and 2) Blue Label, both by Eduardo Sanchéz Rugeles. Los Incurables by Federico Vegas . 1) La Otra Isla, 2) El Pasajero de Truman, and 3) Esa Gente, all of them by Francisco Suniaga,
There are lots of amazing Venezuelan fiction writers today (including Blanco Calderón), too many to list. I recommend a loose group of writers that first started publishing in the early 1990s. They are: Ricardo Azuaje, Israel Centeno, Juan Carlos Chirinos, Rubi Guerra, and Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez. If anyone is interested in reading something in English translation, I recently translated Israel Centeno’s 2002 novel El complot: The Conspiracy (Pittsburgh: Sampsonia Way, 2014). It’s available at Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Conspiracy-Israel-Centeno/dp/1497335108/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404930982&sr=8-1&keywords=israel+centeno
Much as I hate buying books on Amazon, sometimes you just have to buy books on Amazon. thanks
I also translated José Antonio Ramos Sucre into English: Selected Works (University of New Orleans Press, 2012), which is now out of print. If anyone would like a free PDF copy of the book, contact me via Twitter or here and I will gladly e-mail you one.
You should be more specific: Monte Avila Editors now are running the LIBRERIA DEL SUR , and you can find it even in UPATA. Macondo failed a long time ago ,due to poor management . La Suma after the death in a tragic car accident of its owner went down, I think is being run by his sister. I am very sorry for Libroria it was a great space …. The World changes even in Venezuela , but we have new spaces like Buscon , Lugar Comun and the crisis is producing a lot of new writers in every field so a crisis can be also an opportunity. By the way small libraries are closing all over the World being substitutes by large book corporation.
Yes, the world changes… be prepared when change arrive to Venezuela and people start burning anything related to la peste roja – of course not literally!! Most times…. OK, sometimes they will be literally burning old red dirty stuff!- All so called “revolutions” end in the same: people looting the houses and buildings of the “revolutionaries”
Chavismo has created an environment where studying, reading and preparing yourself is generally not viewed as a priority anymore. That is the result of a conscious decision from these thugs to destroy any ability from Venezuelans to elaborate any semi-complex idea. Keeping people poor, both from money and knowledge is key to the survival of la peste roja
The shutting down of Venezuela’s book culture has been some years in the making. I admire the steadfast people behind the few places left. It takes not only careful planning, and imaginative thinking, but also a certain leap of faith given the present situation. It is not just inflation, and a shortage of raw materials that conspire against the trade but also the flight of thousands of professional from the country, a loss of potential costumers. In the late 70s there were at least half a dozen technical bookstores in CCS where one could purchase the latest titles in diverse areas, and in English. This included the cavernous facilities of Techniciencias in Pza Vzla. Universities such as the USB and UCV also had their own bookstores. The PCV had a bookstore along Av S Martin, but besides the ideological hogwash they had many great titles in math, physics and chemistry. There was the Caracas Circulating Library, the Lutheran Church had a great used book store that offered awesome gems of European literature. An adorable couple of elderly Frenchwomen were at the helm of Libreria Soberbia in La Candelaria, a real antiquarian bookstore with a variety of natural history titles. La Francia, in Chacaito; the Italian bookstore in Sabana Grande; the Buecherstube next to Av Libertador, and Maimonides in S Bernardino. I am missing many more. Yes, bookstores come and go, but the net balance has been negative. It was never an outstandingly thriving activity, like Bogota just to mention our neighbours, but it was OK. What is left now is a shadow of the past.
The death of the bookstore is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s good to see that it in the intellectual black hole that this government has brought us to, there are still some people that see the value of the bookstore a as a place of social gathering and to share and debate ideas.
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