Argentine Success Story–Bookstores August 19, 2013

For the second and last week, I’m writing from Buenos Aires with an Argentina success story–bookstores of all things. Next week, “The Other Side of the Peso” returns to Mexico.

On the streets of Buenos Aires’ microcentro (heart of downtown), cellphones are as common as in any U.S. city. So what about e-readers? E-books outsold hardcover books in the U.S. for the first time during the first quarter of 2012. Barnes and Noble and many of the remaining indie bricks-and-mortar bookstores are struggling. Borders is history. In April, 2013 even Amazon reported at 37 percent decrease in profits for the first quarter, though that seems to be due in part to the company’s long-term investment strategy.  

Gustavo Domb, Librería Distal

Gustavo Domb, Librería Distal

Meanwhile back on the streets of downtown Buenos Aires, there’s no problem finding librerías (bookstores), although you’ll probably have to squeeze around browsing customers to walk down any aisle. When I finally found a free sales assistant in one of the thirteen locations of Distal Libros, I asked to see new, popular novels by Latin American writers. Gustavo Domb immediately asked, “The ones with the best sales or the best literature?” Ah yes, the same story all over the world.

We had a great time as Domb pulled six books and enthused about each one. It’s been a very long time since I’ve walked into an American chain store and gotten that kind of attention. I asked Domb if Argentine booksellers are concerned about the threat of e-books. He smiled as if to humor the American and shook his head. “There are people who read on tablets, but business in bookstores is thriving. Argentines read a lot.”

Domb suggested I visit several blocks along Corrientes Avenue where there are lots of librerías de saldos, or remaindered bookstores. Remaindered books are those that don’t sale well. In the U.S., you see them on super discount tables at large bookstores and big-box stores. I was told more than once that Argentine publishers don’t allow new bookstores to sell remainders. Likewise, remainder stores can’t sell new books.

Marcelo Flores, Librería Libertador

Marcelo Flores, Librería Libertador

On Corrientes, I walked only a few blocks between Avenida 9 de Julio and Paraná. I discovered a fascinating world for bibliophiles. At Librería Libertad, Marcelo Flores was busy stamping $10-peso price tags (about $1.25 U.S.) on a stack of children’s books when I asked if we could chat while he worked. He guessed that the original price on these never-used books had probably been around $40 pesos. I asked about the threat of e-readers. Like Domb, Flores smiled and shook his head. “Our customers are even less likely to have one than those who buy in new book stores.”

Flores has worked at the same store for 31 years. “It sounds a little counterintuitive, but when the economy gets tight, we usually benefit.” I asked if there were ever bad times. “Occasionally, when the publishers don’t have a lot of remainders to offer us.”

Leslie with Ricardo Piña, Kiosk of the Poets

Leslie with Ricardo Piña, Kiosk of the Poets

On my way to the used bookstore across the street, I ran into Ricardo Piña at his Kiosk of the Poets. Piña belongs to the Eloísa Cartonera Co-op which started during what is referred to as la crisis de 2003. During that recession when many jobs were lost, the co-op began buying cardboard from cartoneros, individuals who pull cardboard from trash receptacles and resell it for a living. Members cut out and make book covers, decorating them with finger paints. A short, coverless and pre-stapled book is then glued inside. Piña was selling them for $10 each or three for $25 (just over $3 U.S.) By the time that conversation ended, Piña had autographed a copy of his own book for me and we took the photo here, looking like old friends.

Leslie with Catalina and Julián, www.compro-libros.com

Leslie with Catalina and Julián, www.compro-libros.com

From there, I headed for the used book store with www.compro-libros.com painted in huge letters across the top.  When I entered “www.I-buy-books.com,”  Frank Sinatra was crooning “Strangers in the Night” at a very high volume. I found Catalina and Julián behind the register. “If I brought in this book,” I asked, tapping the $20-peso tag on a thick paperback atop a stack on the counter, “how much would you give me for it?”

“Five pesos,” Julián declared without having to think about it.

“And you can sell it for $20?”

“Absolutely.”

When I get back home, it’ll be a while before I pull out my iPad. I plan to enjoy the feel of all those newly acquired books in my hands and spend some time waxing nostalgic for the days of “real” books.      

Below: video of Librería Libertador.

 

Comments

  1. Looks like you’re found your niche in Buenos Aires, Leslie. Glad you are having a great time and sharing the beauty of Argentina with us. Recently read an article about the top 10 bookstores in the world. Only one was located in the US (NYC).

    Travel safely. Bonita

  2. Fascinating, Leslie! Thanks for sharing.

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