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The World in a Book

Latin American bookstores are a world apart, a far cry from the bustle of department stores, intent instead on providing a relaxed atmosphere in which the reader can make his or her selection. In bookstores, time passes much the same as in a library: browsers hear only the voice of curiosity.

By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Noelia Vittori, Gloria Algorta, Jhon Heaver, Pedro Mera

I once held in my hands a book that told the story of a ten year-old girl’s journey to an aunt’s house in the mountains, and more than thirty years later I can remember reading the scene in which the girl looked out the bus window at the frozen landscape. I remember feeling like I was the one who watched the world through that window.

I remember the first time I read Relato de un naúfrago and the cold chill that Gabriel García Márquez made me feel. I remember having to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin at school and how it made me cry and marveling at the journalist’s process in the dramatic story In Cold Blood. And Mario Benedetti’s La tregua still hurts.

There were always books in my parents’ house, towers of books here and there and everywhere, in such disarray that we always feared disappearing inside the corridors created by the piles. Over the years, we discovered treasures stored for decades, including first edition books, historic magazine covers, notes, posters, and even photos… All arranged in the same sweet chaos of life.

The voices concerned with falling readership, the emergence of digital books, and the preference of only the youngest for printed books are more than audible. Making a book costs money; purchasing one does too. Although these modern winds seem bent on convincing us that books are in danger of extinction, many people still enjoy visiting bookstores, browsing among the shelves, and buying that volume that has seduced them.

And so, like lovers, we readers continue to exist. The following is a list of bookstores that continue to offer paradise.

Linardi y Risso

Juan Carlos Gomez 1435, Ciudad Vieja, Montevideo, Uruguay www.linardiyrisso.com

Linardi y Risso is a paradise for bibliophiles. It contains rare and antiquarian books, first editions, works signed by authors, manuscripts, maps, and more. Their catalogue specializes in Spanish, Brazilian, and Argentine literature, and the store’s shelves have been graced, for example, by first editions of Juan Carlos Onetti’s El pozo (1939), long before the Uruguayan writer rose to fame. The bookstore is also a publishing house specializing in politics, current events essays, poetry, and history.

Linardi y Risso is housed in the historic “Casa del Vicario” building located in Montevideo’s Ciudad Vieja. It is recognized internationally as an iconic home of twentieth-century Latin American literature. Established in 1944, it has been visited by personalities such as Mario Benedetti, Mario Vargas Llosa, and the late Eduardo Galeano, who left this entry among the signatures in the 1999 guestbook: “In the Linardi madhouse, where the crazy come for books, I leave this embrace.”

Despite all this wealth, Linardi y Risso has not been spared by the younger generations’ flagging interest in books. Andrés Linardi, one of the children of the original owners, said as early as 2005, in an interview with the Argentine newspaper Clarín, that he missed two things about the “old days”: “The time that writers had to spend in conversation; and the passionate collectors. It’s a sad thing to see an original travelogue from 1717 sold to Europe, because we know we’ll probably never see it again. In the past, a man of good taste was proud of his library; nowadays that pride is displayed for an expensive car.”

So now you know: if you’re ever in Montevideo, make sure to visit this corner of Latin America full of dreams and wisdom.

El Ateneo Grand Splendid

Avenida Santa Fe, La Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

El Ateneo is a chain of Argentine bookstores with 34 locations, but El Ateneo Grand Splendid, in the very touristy and exclusive neighborhood of La Recoleta, is its favorite child.

In 2000, the ILHSA Group —the owners of the bookshops— rented the Grand Splendid Theater (which was closed), invested over $300,000 dollars in renovations, and reopened it as a bookstore, transforming the box seats, benches, and even the stage into marvelous display areas, reading rooms, and a cafe.

The Grand Splendid Theatre, designed by architects Peró and Torres Armengol at the beginning of the twentieth century, boasted four rows of boxes, five hundred seats, a dome, and Troiani sculptures on both sides of the stage. The store opened in May 1919 and its 6,500 square feet now hold 120,000 titles, to the delight of the 3,000 aficionados that visit daily.

The bookshop has preserved the frescoes painted in the dome by Italian Nazareno Orlandi and in addition to its huge stock of books, there is a children’s section in the basement and an area for events and exhibitions on the upper floor.

Eterna Cadencia

Palermo Viejo Buenos Aires, Argentina www.eternacadencia.com.ar/

Eterna Cadencia looks like a delightful place. The name alone suggests enjoyment and pleasure. Located in a restored house in Palermo, Eterna Cadencia came about when Paul Braun was suffering from an existential crisis, though quite sure of what he wanted: a place to chat, drink coffee, and sit and read comfortably on the patio, the terrace, or in one of the cozy indoor corners.

Opened in December 2005, this bookstore specializes in literary texts and maintains an in-house expert with whom readers can consult. Aside from selling books and providing a place to meet, the bookstore also organizes lectures and workshops with writers.

And, over the years, the Eterna Cadencia Editora publishing house was founded, offering both fiction and nonfiction collections. The publishers also maintain smaller music and journal collections. Their shelves and tables hold offerings from several independent publishers, and according to Paul Braun, only “the good authors” from large publishers are allowed in.

The Pendulum

Mexico City www.pendulo.com

The first branch of El Péndulo sprang up in Condesa in 1993, and today there are five other branches in Polanco, Santa Fe, Perisur, Zona Rosa, and Rome.

Conceived from the outset as a cradle for cultural and artistic events, those in the know say that each of the locations has its own relaxed and bohemian atmosphere that welcomes visitors not only to its specialized arts and humanities sections, but also invites them to sit and chat take in the restaurants and bars in several of the locations.

El Péndulo has books on architecture, contemporary art, science, film, design, LGBT culture, literary criticism, biographies, gastronomy, photography, Mexican history, fashion, crime fiction, children’s, and even Russian literature. More than eighty publishers are represented here and the store offers workshops on poetry writing, drama, creative writing, literary imagination, and historical fiction. One day you’ll encounter a philosophical roundtable for adolescents and the next a coffee klatch for discussing the unconditional nature of love.

One funny detail: All El Péndulo stores, including the on-line store, offer design products from clocks, magnets, and coasters to puppets and collectible dolls. And for techies, there are plenty of e-books for your cyber-library.

Librería Lerner

Bogotá, Colombia www.librerialerner.com.co

Founded in 1958, Librería Lerner has two locations in the Colombian capital of Bogotá, and a well-earned reputation in the cultural and academic world based on the more than 100,000 titles on display and in stock. While specializing in Colombian books, the Lerner also has a large children’s section, the best selection of institutional magazines, and offers advice on what to buy, among other services.

In this reference library teachers and students will find books on architecture and design, agriculture and agronomy, science and popular science, film and photography, geography and urban planning, ecology, literary studies, medicine and history, and many others. At the risk of exaggerating, you can find books on every imaginable subject to delight booklovers and specialized readers alike.

Lerner also maintains a busy cultural calendar. They recently hosted a discussion on “Literature, Conflict, and Post-Conflict” and presented the drama La edad de la ciruela.

Don’t forget: If you’re in Bogotá, visit the Lerner. There’s one downtown at No. 4-35 Avenida Jiménez, and another on the north side at No. 15-23 Calle 92.