Operating in an industry facing intense pressure from online competition, Buenos Aires’ independent booksellers remain confident that the city’s rich cultural traditions will survive.
The joy of book shopping is one of many sensual pleasures gradually being lost to the internet; scanning brightly coloured covers on sturdy brown shelves, flicking through crisp white pages to catch the style of unknown authors, feeling completely incapable of rejecting the shop assistant’s suggestion and buying that cool young author’s new novel even though you’ve already read some of his stuff and you’re sure you won’t like it. Amazon, with its algorithmic recommendations and delayed-satisfaction delivery times, just can’t compare.
Luckily for those who find themselves in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital has more bookshops per person than any other city in the world – around 25 for every 100,000 porteños.
From the immense ‘corridor of books’ concentrated on Av. Corrientes to countless small neighbourhood shops, booksellers retain a prominence in Buenos Aires’ cultural and commercial landscape that has faded in many cities in Europe and the US, where the trade is dominated by online retailers and eBooks now account for over a quarter of book purchases.
In previous times, it was Europe that nourished what Sebastian Noejovich, Co-ordinator of Cultural Industries for the city government, calls the “porteño culture of the bookseller”. Things began to take off, he explains, when huge government-sponsored waves of Italian, Spanish, German, French, and Slavic immigrants arrived on Argentina’s shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Policies to promote immigration transformed the social composition of Buenos Aires, not only creating a new demand for content, but also brining in new cultural contributions from these immigrants, particularly those who arrived at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War,” notes Noejovich, who is also a professor of Literature at the National Arts University. As porteño society was infused by a diverse set of literary voices and entrepreneurial styles, influenced by conflicts in Europe and elsewhere in Latin America, the book trade grew exponentially. Bookshops became another feather in the cultural cap of the ‘Paris of South America’.
“Some very emblematic publishers and bookshops were established back then, often family businesses. They gave our country’s book industry a very distinct profile,” says Noejovich. Around that time the symbolic centre of Buenos Aires’ book scene took root on Av. Corrientes, where it has remained ever since – there are still more than 30 between the streets Junín and Libertad alone.
Throughout the 20th century, the industry continued to grow alongside literacy rates and university admissions, as well as the popularisation of the easy-to-carry pocket book. “All of these things helped to set the stage for Buenos Aires to become one of the capitals of the Latin American Boom,” explains Noejovich, referring to the explosive success of the region’s literary scene in the 1960s and ’70s, during which time Argentine writers like Julio Cortázar and Manuel Puig gained international acclaim.
At the end of the century, as with pretty much everything else in Argentina, things took a turn for the worse. As prices on goods made and sold in the country shot up thanks to the convertibility system – which pegged the peso to the dollar at a fixed 1:1 exchange rate – booksellers struggled to shift their wares and publishers failed to cover the costs of printing new books in the country. Falling consumption rates from a financially beleaguered Argentine public didn’t help matters.
21st Century Recovery
Cheaper printing costs after the 2002 devaluation boosted the production of books in Argentina (which is now the biggest publisher in Latin America) and prompted the founding of a number of small independent presses in Buenos Aires, often with their own shops attached.
This is the case for Mansalva publishers and its lively Villa Crespo bookshop La Internacional. The store’s manager, Nicolas Moguilevsky, experienced the early 2000s as a transformative period.
“Before, in the ’80s and ’90s, all the books came from Spain. There were some big publishing houses here but very few independent ones, and the ones there were published very little,” recalls Moguilevsky. “You could get an illustrated and translated edition of [Raymond] Roussel’s Impressions of Africa, or the complete works of Rimbaud. But you couldn’t get Dalia Rosetti or Pablo Pérez or … so many of the authors that I think you really ought to read today.
After the 2001 economic crisis, says Moguilevsky, there was a new “cultural need” to publish things that previously weren’t really valued in the publishing industry.
In terms of economic advantages, booksellers and publishers continue to receive a boost from books’ exemption from VAT – applied at a hefty 21% on most consumer goods – and likely from recent import restrictions which made it near impossible for multinational online retailers like Amazon to set up shop in Argentina.
Cynically, you might say that the new, more import-friendly government – who could open the gates to cheap foreign booksellers, electronic devices and eReaders, having lifted the import restrictions placed by the previous government – is a bad omen for bookshop owners.
Yet Noejovich is convinced this is not the case. In fact, he calls the application of import restrictions on books by the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner government “a blunder”.
“In cultural terms, this industry feeds off of diversity and limitations on contracting illustration and design services from abroad only increase the cost of support services (including printing), which, of course, is a cost carried over into the price of the books, to the detriment of readers.”
“As for Amazon,” Noejovich says, “it’s true that it constitutes a threat for all bookshops – not just independent ones – in the countries where it operates. But it’s also true that in many of those countries, – as in the case of France, Germany and the US among others – it has stimulated programs to strengthen independent bookshops.”
Supporting the “professionalisation” of book-selling, he explains, means heightening the level of service that bookshops can offer, allowing them to compete not only with online sellers, but also with big chains who offer less personalised and dedicated assistance.
According to Noejovich, many booksellers in Buenos Aires are already skilled “cultural ambassadors”, constantly creating new readers and bringing new material to them.
The large number of book-based events on offer in Buenos Aires strengthen the relationship between sellers and readers, turning the act of buying a book from a commercial transaction into a cultural one. One such event is the book fair run by La Internacional several times a year. “About a thousand people come each time and move around the fair,” says Moguilevsky. “The street fills up with people, it’s lovely. It means that the book goes straight from the publisher to the reader, to the people who love books, who consume books.”
Another unique quality which may protect Buenos Aires’ bookshops from the onslaught of the digital economy is their ability to act as social, as well as intellectual, hubs. La Internacional stays open until 10 or 11pm most nights, continuing the tradition started at the densely packed series of shops on Av. Corrientes. These stores are famous for their late closing times, designed to catch people on their way out of theatres or restaurants who continue the night leafing through literary material.
La Libre, an independent bookshop in San Telmo, also encourages its customers to approach reading and literature as a social act. La Libre uses its upstairs space to put on talks, readings, musical recitals, photo exhibitions, film screenings and book-binding classes, always with an emphasis on asking questions and participating in a cultural conversation.
“Events like this make our place into a space of cultural and social conscience, of sharing, instead of just a shop,” explains Darío Semino, one of several owners who runs the business as a cooperative. Event themes are diverse, recent topics have included movement, mistakes, and gynecology.
Another owner, Simon, says it’s not the prospect of online competition, nor eReaders which threaten bookshops, but things like Netflix which turn people off reading altogether. “But,” he insists, “things haven’t really changed here. Books are a form of media, like any other. Nowadays people are very interested in interacting with media, in participating. We just have to allow them to do that.”
Watching staff at La Libre paint murals for their latest event, or Moguilevsky breaking off from our chat to share his encyclopaedic knowledge with a casual customer, it’s clear that for some in Buenos Aires, selling books is still an art, and not just a job. The emphasis on sharing, socialising and learning and the rejuvenation they have experienced since the ’90s all lend Buenos Aires bookshops an air of quiet confidence in the face of the technological and economic shifts their trade faces.