Saturday, November 28, 2009

What a bookstore means to me

[Photo from another blog]

Yesterday, I decided to take advantage of the gloriously torrential weather and check out some bookstores that I've had my eyes on.

El Ateneo is supposed to be Latin America's biggest bookstore found on the famously designer street, Santa Fe in the prestigious neighbourhood of Recoleta. It is a converted theatre (the old kind where plays were hosted) that has not lost any of its lustre. Gold-encrusted railings lining three floors of viewing balconies. Ivory adornements throughout and a voluminously red, velvet curtain framing the former stage. As I got closer to the stage, I realized that it was a cafe. Someone can drink a coffee and read her favourite Shakespeare on centre-stage, imagining how the scenes must have been performed so long ago.

Every edition of every novel was pristinely new. The spines never cracked, even by the respectfully toting tourists and out of towners. A spiral column of Dan Brown's newest release guarded (or beaconed in front of, depending on your tastes) the entrance. To me, it appeared to be set up as a warning for lovers of literature to turn heel. Obviously, I persevered a bit, but I read between the lines. This is a bookstore not unlike a Chapters: Organized yet unknowledgable, beautiful yet sterile, busy yet uninviting. I left after 15 minutes.

I decided to walk south on Callao to Av. Corrientes. On this street was another bookstore I looked up called Gandhi. Some hippie-gobbley goop, no doubt. Apparently, they have live bands play in the frontal cafe during nighttime hours. Mish-mash o' mediums.

The bookstore in the back was the complete opposite of El Ateneo. The sections were small and it smelled of used, dirty pages. Too many hands, too many watermarks. It was beautiful.

There were whole tables of books on sale for $10AR, which is about $3CA, each. Three for $25AR. The staff were so helpful, especially with my broken castellano. The eccentric cashier had to explain why the price listed inside the book was not the real price and how the book cost more.

Inflation, you know. The economic crisis means we had to raise our prices.

The book was still only $15CA. Nonetheless, I didn't have that kind of money on me.

Next time, I said, I will be back.

What a bizarre twist of events. Here was this bookstore that had no books that I wanted, but everything I needed. To me, that's what a bookstore, any store, is supposed to be. However, we have grown up in a culture where we get what we want. It's all about options, which is nice, but during the course of obtaining want, we forgot what we need. For example, things we need as social creatures: human interaction and multiple opinions.

Not only have we become so focused on want, but we cannot even decipher the difference between want and need anymore. I want, therefore I need. Thanks to socially- and politically-constructed institutions like Oprah, people feel like they need the most prisitine copy of 50 year-old classics because those books have the Book Club stamp on them. Our only human interaction about what to read is suggested through a television personality at 3pm everyday. Our only opinion we rely on, is that same person's.

Obviously this does not apply to everyone. There are still people who rely on their local bookstores for interaction and opinion. However, I would just like to point out relics like Pages in Toronto. After over a quater-century in the business, it goes under. A block away, Chapters is packed.

Why? Because it's got what we want.

This is a very personal version of what a bookstore means to me. So, I am going for the kidneys: I think bookstores should be havens of knowledge. Places where you can smell aged paper and and ink-sodden hands. Places that don't have what you want, but will get it for you because the people are what you need.

Hopeully, with El Ateneo being only a few blocks away, Gandhi will live on. From what I've seen, the people in Argentina are not willing to go down without a fight, even if they take the route of passive resistance.


  1. Pages closed because it didn't want or couldn't pay the new rent. In North America everything is about the almighty dollar. What does it say about a society who allows the independent businesses to fold. Not everything has to be big business, but even in pages I didn't find the staff very helpful, nor knowledgeable. They kind of operated like a small version of Chapters/Indigo. So it can be mentally too. That's what happens to independents in the designer end of town. It's sad, so I guess you will have to open a book store & show them how its done.

  2. Pages was awesome. The staff may not have been friendly, but they knew their stuff. Knowledge is power. The pen is mightier than the sword! And so forth. I can't tell you how many times I have been in Chapters and felt like a ding dong would be more helpful.

    To open a bookstore? A marvelous idea. Would it ever last? A marelous answer.

    Probably not.