Temples of Books
The demise of the independent bookstore is a sad fact of life in the U.S., especially for those who simply love books, their physical feel, their aura, their place in our intellectual lives. Yet in some parts of the world, books and reading still infuse everyday life, and one such place that inspires a booklover's belief in their purpose and pleasure is Buenos Aires, Argentina. I discovered this city of book gold on a pilgrimage of research several years ago.
Hundreds of bookstores are scattered throughout the city's oldest barrios, but the great house of worship is El Ateneo on Avenida Santa Fe, a former opera theater built in 1913, a movie theater in 1926, and a bookstore in 2000. You enter the grand foyer between Greek columns and plate glass displays, immediately surrounded by books, beyond in the nave that once seated nearly two thousand, row upon row of bookshelves under an awesome dome five stories overhead adorned with mythical figures painted by Nazareno Orlandi. Under the great cupola, four balconied tiers of box seats turned into book-lined reading alcoves overlook the auditorium, original brass ornamentation all still in place. In the hall’s center, amid all the books, an escalator descends to the basement full of yet more books. I watched two grade school teachers leading a class of twenty or thirty kids on a fieldtrip into the lower levels to the children’s section. Parents lead kids by the hand through the aisles. Astounding! On the other side of the great hall, the stage, still draped by a red velvet curtain three stories high, has been converted to a café and reading parlor. The London Guardian once called El Ateneo one of the ten most important bookstores in the world. It’s certainly one of the most spectacular.
This city may hold more writers and more publishing houses and bookstores than all of the U.S, with twice as many readers in a population one-tenth the size. And not just Argentine writers, most work is world literature in Spanish and a half dozen other languages and runs the whole gamut of subjects and genres. Another big bookstore just down the street carries some of the same stock but with an eclectic selection of titles all its own. Then there is another and another and yet another bodega full of books. To someone coming from the Barnes & Noble culture, it’s simply incredible to go into so many bookstores, hundreds of them, and each so different than the one before, and all employing a lot of people. It’s just so, so…foreign!
Even more inspirational and valuable to the researcher are the antiquarian bookstores hidden in the canyon niches of the city's streets, the vaults of lore and knowledge in lost, decaying tomes. These are the churches of the bibliophiles, collectors, and scholars searching for the esoteric, the mysterious, the missing. In basements and two storey walk-ups and niches and cells and behind distinguished storefronts the antiquarians hoard their stashes. You can find Cardinal Richelieu’s “Political Testament,” printed in Madrid in 1696; or “The Municipal Census of Buenos Aires, 1887;” or a 1949 edition of Pablo Neruda’s “Dulce Patria; “Argentine Ornithology,” an 1888 original by W.H. Hudson; a 1930s autographed photo of tango crooner, Carlos Gardel; an original lithograph of General San Martín; manuscript pages of Luis Borges. All the old dealers are very accommodating. (And they’re always old guys, whether they’re waiting tables or manning doorways (porteros), stamping papers or sitting at desks in bookstores.) In the second place, they love their books and know their stock like a cattleman knows his. They buy and sell, appraise and restore, even rebind books. In the third place, they have parts of the story, some story, somewhere in the back room shadows, in old documents and journals, in private collections and rare editions. And finally, it’s the feel of each unique antiquarian stash, the color, mood, and smell of each aged collection, especially on dark, rain-drenched days with the stone walls of the city itself crowding in like the walls of a friar’s cell.
Cueva Libros—Book Cave—is a narrow walk-in crammed to the high ceiling with bookshelves, a ladder on a running rail reaching the highest, most obscure books. The aisle is a path between book bins, and the backrooms warehouse more old books. The Rincón del Antequario on Junín is another glass storefront, the entrance to its long, narrow room locked and the walls behind it book-lined a half a block back to the alley. “Books ancient and new,” lettered above the door, announces their trade. When I’m ushered in by the youngest clerk, the store is well lighted like a library and smells of dust and brittle pages and lost time. Three gentlemen in ties and spectacles sit behind various counters and desks piled with nameless hardbacks and dog-eared paperbacks crowding against new computer screens. They shuffle various pages and documents, stamping stuff like bureaucrats, trying to look busy around crooked stacks of books, and that is hard to do. Librería Capítulo Final on Riobamba is a small, green storefront mostly filled by a show window and a narrow door, also glass, but framed and barred in wrought iron. The sign over the door is faded out and you have to be looking for this hole in the wall to find it. The window displays half a dozen different versions of José Hernandez’s outlaw poem, “The Gaucho Martín Fierro.” Librería El Glyptodón is a crypt you step down into from Ayacucho Street, dark and low ceilinged, book stacks like stalagmites, crowded shelves like pocks in a cave wall holding the dead. The clerk dresses in heavy black. Fernández Blanco in the Microcenter has elegant displays in giant, bright windows. Behind the locked door a broad salon of overstuffed reading chairs, the open space before the clerk’s desk dominated by a nineteenth century globe in an oak stand. Librería Imago Mundi is oak and glass encased bookcases, Louis XVI furniture and antique clocks under track lighting, hygienic, ordered collections of forgotten volumes. Librería Antiquaria Figueroa is another cavern of crammed shelves of eclectic editions and walls of gaucho memorabilia. The Lord Byron is a salon the poet himself may have just left. El Ventanal is the owner’s own cluttered study in a walk-down niche on Avenida de Mayo as lost in time as the avenue itself.
--Okay, okay, you have to love books, the feel and smell and sense of hidden knowledge that rare and out of print books, original manuscripts, ancient maps, old engravings can be. You have to be someone who is comforted being in great halls or narrow crannies lined and jammed with bookshelves and stacks and boxes of books. Such places are a scholar’s sacred place. There’s simply another presence there, the fruit of knowledge, the lost, last words of those who came before and left a message, an idea, an insight that might mean something personal and powerful to those who follow, searching for their own something among the brittle and yellowing pages.
And then, there it is: a trove of information that until this moment you’ve only heard about, right before your eyes, and in your consciousness the feel of finding an icon, a symbol, an artifact of what you have a passion for, be it a profession or a pastime, or a piece of knowledge that means something to you. To find anything these days that has personal value and is suddenly available is a genuinely human delight that does not come along often. To solve a mystery on your own, to put a last piece of a puzzle into place, to open a mental window on a new view, to collect another bit of history—the possibilities are all so simple, but so satisfying.