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Mexico City's literary circle

The Centro Histórico area is the nation's repository of rare and antique bookstores.

November 08, 2009|Kurt Hollander

MEXICO CITY — For decades, Enrique Fuentes, the owner of Libreria Madero, an antique-book store in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, has scavenged through piles of near-garbage every Tuesday morning in a junkyard market in search of printed matter. A 16th century book he dug up there in 1985 paid for the bookstore. "Finding a book like that was like winning the lottery," he said.

In Mexico City, books tend to exchange hands continually among private collections, bookstores and public libraries -- sold, stolen, lost or often just tossed into the trash. Garbage is huge business within the city, and books salvaged from the dump are sold to junk dealers, who sell them on the street, in neighborhood markets or to used- and antique-book stores.

Although many of its books come from such humble sources, Libreria Madero has one of the finest collections of Mexican history and antique books, which are sold mostly to private collectors, academics and public institutions such as Mexico's National Library. The tomes that line its walls from floor to ceiling, creating a classy gilded leather wallpaper effect, are clean and well organized.

That's not the case in the dozen or so used-book stores, with names such as the Labyrinth and the Underworld, housed in giant commercial spaces within crumbling colonial buildings along the length of Calle Donceles. Donceles is one of the oldest streets in Mexico City, graced with cobblestones and ornate wrought-iron lampposts, just a block from the Catedral Metropolitana in the zocalo.

Given the stacks of dusty old books heaped on tables, stuffed onto shelves or spilled onto the sidewalks, you could easily imagine that these used-book stores have been on this street since Mexico was a Spanish colony.

Although this neighborhood was home to the first printing press on the continent (100 years before the first book was published in the U.S.) and was for centuries the center of Mexican publishing, the Centro Historico again has become a major hub for bookstores.

But with rising rents owing to gentrification, sagging sales because of the global economic crisis and the Internet, these used- and antique-book stores, repositories of Mexican publishing history of the last four centuries, are threatened with becoming history themselves.

Mercurio Lopez Casillas, owner of three used-book stores on Calle Donceles, isn't panicking quite yet. "New bookstores might cease to exist," he says, "but used- and antique- book stores will always be around because of people's longing for the past."

The past still influences the present in Mexico City, especially within the world of books. As in the medieval European guild system, the used-book trade tends to be inherited. In La Lagunilla, the largest, oldest antique street market in the Centro Historico and an obligatory stop for all serious book collectors, the patch of concrete on which the vendors sell their wares is passed down from father to son.

The used-book stores on Donceles also tend to be a family affair. Casillas' father and five of his uncles owned used-book stores, and nine of his 13 brothers and sisters are in the book business, including many of the competing used-book stores on Donceles.

Because of the stiff competition, antique books, which were collector's items to begin with, are increasingly hard to come by. Books published before the 20th century were printed on demand in limited editions for the ruling class and for the clergy in luxurious editions, often bound in calfskin or velvet, adorned with gilt lettering, ivory or pearls and secured by silk or leather clasps. For those who can't afford such past-century treasures (often costing thousands of dollars), many handsome reprints of antique Mexican books are available.

Next year's celebration of the bicentennial of Mexico's independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution has local presses busy churning out old publishing gems (though without the pearls).

Some of the most impressive books printed these days are facsimiles of pre-Columbian codices. The Aztecs and other civilizations produced books with pleated sheets of vegetable fiber paper and illustrated with glyphs, often preserved between thin sheets of wood and stored in libraries.

Past-century studio and travel photographs are also being reprinted directly from the pages of used books. Besides providing the publishing world with content, the art, photography and history books on sale within Donceles' used-book stores serve as a better introduction to Mexican culture than any local museum.

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