To call Dain Usina Cultural a bookstore is misleading. Agreed, its main feature is books—more than 20,000 of them in a 150m² library—but there is so much more to it than that. On a corner of Palermo Soho, this colonial-style house is a centre of creative energy, typical of the enterprising spirit that runs through this arty district of Buenos Aires.
DUC stands out for its beautiful architecture and design, crafted by Sebastian Koltan (Estudio Mantero Koltan). The walls have been painted a perfect white, while the tall glass windows and heavy black steel door provide a strikingly modern touch. The refurbishment of the house lasted over a year with the final touches added in April 2011.
The main lobby could be a modern cathedral-like room with alcoves and balconies. The openness establishes the house and its grounds as part of the public realm; something that belongs to everyone. On the right there’s a restaurant-cafe, and on the third floor a splendid “Epicurus” rooftop terrace with big white couches under the shade of a willow tree. To get there I urge you to take the lift. I will not spoil the surprise but I can say that it is a work of art in itself.
When I first discovered DUC, not only did I want to set camp and move in, I felt as if the walls were whispering and telling me there was a story behind it all. A few days later, I went to meet DUC founder Endy Dain and her collaborator Francisco Offenhenden.
DUC is before anything else, a bookshop; when you enter, it won’t take long for a friendly staff member to ask: “What are you reading right now?”
Dain told me about her untamed love for literature: “I never go anyway without a book, I would feel naked. Sometimes I don’t read but I need a book in my bag, as my friend, my amulet, my fetish”. Francisco Offenhenden says this was his lifetime vocation: “I always knew that I wanted to be surrounded by books”, and he has, since age seventeen. He also plays the guitar— “very well” Endy says—but that’s a secret.
You can find any book in here, from classical to contemporary literature, but DUC is proud in making its mark with a large collection of art and design special editions, with topics ranging from textile, fashion, photography, gastronomy, and travel. Offenhenden explains that “in this neighbourhood the general profile is a literary one, focused on art, design, textile, so we work in this sense. We try to buy special books that are not elsewhere, for specialised people. It goes for literature as well, we have specialist authors”.
For Dain, pursuing your passions and the ideas of your youth is immensely gratifying. “It’s an idea I had when I was 22, when I was a student of history at the faculty of philosophy and literature. I worked a while on investigations and teaching in secondary schools. Then I got married, had children. But I have always been a big reader. I worked part-time as an English translator, but I never stopped reading. And I never left aside the idea that once my kids would be grown up I would have more time in my hands and I could open a book shop.”
Everything has a meaning in DUC. Including its name: “Dain is my surname, from my parents. They were both big readers. I didn’t have any TV before I got married, because my mum wanted us to read instead. Usina cultural was both of our ideas. We agreed that we didn’t want a traditional book shop that was just a library, but more something that generates a lot of creative and positive energy. We wanted people to feel comfortable here, well attended to, to make it their own place. On the creative side we wanted something that would be very open-minded to any form of art: emergent art, from young to more conservative, novels, music, essays, philosophy, poetry.”
In addition to the library, the lobby and cafe host concerts on week-ends, and book signings, art exhibition, short-courses and workshops during the week. Dain loved a recent poetry reading event “That’s the traditional way of reading,” she says. “It’s something that doesn’t happen much today because people don’t read poetry anymore. It was a magical moment.”
Offenhenden and Dain’s different tastes complement each other, when managing the bookshop, choosing the events, the courses and setting the tone of DUC. This is what makes it unique: they are a very open-minded pair, trying to bring fresh new talents to the stage and presenting them in a different way.
Offenhenden told me about their tango show, which actually describes Argentine literature. He wants to “give a new swing” to literature and arts. That’s what DUC is all about and in Offenhenden’s own words, makes them survive as a new conceptual library in Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires, which is UNESCO’s choice for world book capital in 2011, is a source of inspiration for Dain: “I think we could say Buenos Aires is the world cultural city, really. I was lucky enough to travel a lot in my life, and very few cities in the world have the creative dynamics of Buenos Aires.”
“The city deserves to be world book city”, she says, “because Argentine literature is creative, very creative. There’s a lot of people writing, a lot of readers, a lot of editors and publishers. It’s always a good thing to have a striving cultural scene, it elevates the human mind.”
The gastronomic offer contributes to the general philosophy of DUC. Led by Guadalupe Pimentel, the Resto Café is presented as a meeting place with an elaborate cuisine. The gourmet menu includes options for breakfast and snacks: salads, sandwiches and tapas for brunch, lunch or dinner and a delicious pastry to accompany a coffee at any time of day. They also have a variety of cocktails, including classics like the Mojito, and innovative creations like the ‘Tangerine Raspberry Caipri’ or the ‘Mule’.
DUC also has English books, and from what I have been told, there will soon be more translations of Argentine and Latin-American books into English.
Dain’s final words to me were precious: “Our beautiful and beloved country was given a time for everything, you have to do things right and we want to help make things right, we are signing up for that.”
In the long-run they have more projects, more ideas, more to look forward to –maybe start publishing one day- but for the time being, enjoying, and reading, always.