The twilight of bookstores…

Por José Antonio Michelena

venta-de-libros-plaza-de-armas, librerías cubanasIf the extinction of the vast majority of cinemas in Havana is a fact, so is the bookstores, even if it manifests the same differently. Cinemas have been confined to El Vedado, while bookstores are still present throughout the city, but, with rare exceptions, they are an illusion, specters of what they were.
Half a century ago, recalling his youthful years, Guillermo Cabrera Infante wrote: “We went down by Bishop, flanked by bookstores […] and we walked between books,” denoting the constant presence of each other in that restless and populous stretch of Old Havana. Could the author of Havana now say the same for a deceased infant?
Definitely not at the entrance of Bishop, Modern Poetry, under a new administration, expects a renewal that will return at least a part of his soul, because a long time ago the distinguished bookstore that was no longer exists: his enormous space is a desert, as long as his shelves shelter books whose prices make them inaccessible to the pockets of the ordinary citizen.
At the head of La Moderna…, the Cervantes wastes the place of privilege where it is located: it is a widened repository of books and magazines, a heterodox mix of genres and publishers of very diverse scope and profile, in which it is difficult to orient themselves; for example, in an shelf that claims to contain novelties, publication dates point to something else. That bookstore, one of the two in the capital intended for the sale of titles from provincial publishers, could make that function a distinctive brand, give it a personality, but it is not.
Following the Cervantes, La Internacional, under the management of Artex, ceased to be a bookstore to become a multi-object store. In the not-so-remote past, when it belonged to Cuban Editions, on its shelves we could see a good number of encyclopedias and imported books. I remember seeing luxurious editions of Aguilar, but also the biographies of Jack Kerouac, Jackson Pollock and Georgia O’Keeffe, edited by Circe, which could be purchased at auction prices.
Finally, the initial stretch of Obispo Street lost that cultural distinction that it acquired many years ago and maintained until the 1980s, when it was still held there on the Saturday of the book; it is now the anteroom of a bazaar and corridor for tourists on the hunt for the folkloric.
Fortunately, on the bishop’s premises, several blocks below, is the Fayad Jamís bookstore, the best functioning and the most well-stocked in the capital. On its tables and shelves, we not only find the widest variety of books and magazines, but everything is organized with care.
However, the most important thing about this library is that it maintains the power to be a center of culture, a site of exchange and socialization between authors, publishers, bookcases and readers. Not to taste his administrator has been there for twenty years and retains a sense of pride and love for the profession, something very rare these days. Although he is not the only booker in Havana with such persistence, there are many more years to keep in that work against the wind and tide.
At the end of Bishop, the Plaza de Armas no longer hosts the sellers of books of use, confined (and almost extinct) in a space that almost no one frequents. Since the 1990s, they were part of new management and trade dynamics in this area and brought a peculiar touch to that founding corner of the city. They’re already a sepia postcard, a memory of the past.
Not far from Bishop, near the Old Square, on Amargura Street, the Bookstore of Ediciones Boloña is a luxury space for that stamp of the Office of the Historian of the City, but, although the offer is attractive and the sale in national currency, there is no idea of the existence of the site and is little visited.
The largest network of bookstores in the country is under the tutelage of the provincial centers of book and literature (CPLL), a structure created on a date that is not conducive: 1990, right in the preamble to crises. The idea was good because it meant providing greater cultural tools to a company that until then had basically had a commercial function, but was born at the wrong time, at the crossroads of two eras.
It must be very difficult to maintain, to a company that markets an item whose production fell greatly and whose demand also plummeted. CPLLs don’t have it easy. Bookstores, such as The Century of Lights, on Neptune Street, died, while many others barely exist.
Some bookstores in Havana were managed by artex, from the Ministry of Culture, which was not a cultural breakthrough, but a focus on currency capture. The most active is the Rubén Martínez Villena, in Prado, in front of the Capitol; even though what he sells most are backpacks, wallets, or stationery, the books still have a presence in his living room, but the space for them has been reduced.
Likewise, instead of privilege, in the heart of Vedado, but minada by boredom, Fernando Ortiz is another of Artex’s bookstores. There they have put into practice a rare marketing technique: some shelves have labels such as “derma”, or “slow movement”, and prices, instead of appearing in books, are located on the shelf itself, as if they were hardware items.
However, this procedure involves something “novel” because books under these categories suffer from a price drop that can become considerable, an unusual practice in the country. And since that merchandise has no expiration date, such as mayonnaise or milk powder, it seems right to proceed. But, the customers of that establishment don’t show much interest in books.
A short distance from Fernando Ortiz, going down 25th Street towards Infanta, the Centennial of the Apostle bookstore, belonging to the CPLL, also offers rebates, but unlike the first, it has a constant movement of public, it is one of the most dynamic in the city, with a very varied offer and a service that lives up to tradition.
The death of cinemas and the twilight of bookstores have a fundamental cause: the current time, which, in the case of Cuba, always adds other edges. Globally, both cultural spaces have had to reinvent themselves, which are redefined in this era of internet sales, distribution platforms, e-books and other innovations introduced by technology.
Bookstores are part of a system that has undergone major changes in production, marketing and circulation, but on the island we have not heard about it. And as both here and in the rest of the world, everything is a reflection of social reality, in the face of people’s depressed economy, book buying moves to a very secondary level. Between buying a book or a pizza there is hardly any alternative… Ω

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