September 19, 2013
New York gets a new (temporary) Spanish-language bookstore
by Sal Robinson
It’s a good time for bookstores in New York, there’s no denying it. Less so if you’re Barnes & Noble, of course, but the number of fantastic, independent, stuffed-to-the-gills-with-good-books-and-smart-people new and used bookstores that have opened and flourished in the past 10 years is pretty astonishing, given the bookstore-imperiling juggernauts of Amazon, e-books, and the recession.
And along with the success and expansion of these places (Word! We’re going to come see you in Jersey City!) has come a quiet boom in the availability of foreign language books. No longer do you have to go to that weird place under the stairs at the Strand to find Madame Bovary in the original, or online. Because it has long been one of the stranger aspects of the New York bookstore life that a city that has so many speakers of multiple languages had only a few spots to buy books in languages that aren’t English. When the Librairie de France in Rockefeller Center closed in 2009, the most visible outpost of such stores disappeared, though, happily, then Kinokuniya opened up across from Bryant Park a few years later.
However, for Spanish-language readers, the options have been fairly limited since the closing of Librería Lectorum and Librería Macondo in 2007, long a New York institution. But that’s starting to change. There’s the great Spanish-language section and events programming at McNally Jackson, run by Javier Molea. There’s the multi-lingually-stocked Word Up, the pop-up bookstore that became permanent, in Washington Heights, and slightly older neighborhood staple, La Casa Azul, in Spanish Harlem. And now, there’s Librería Donceles, which is an all-Spanish used bookstore in the Kent Fine Art Gallery in Chelsea.
Librería Donceles was created by the artist Pablo Helguera, and it’s not quite your average used bookstore — at the moment, it’s more of an art project. Helguera collected the books by soliciting donations initially from friends in Mexico City, where he’s from (and where the historic Calle de Donceles is packed with bookstores). But, as an NBC Latino article on the store reports, after a piece about the project was published in the newspaper La Jornada, he began to get donations from all over, eventually amassing over 7,000 books. This means that the collection is full of good, motley stuff — interviewed by the art world blog HyperAllergic, Helguera describes it as a mix of “1940s studies of archaeology, 1970s Marxist essays, 1980s law manuals, theater, sociology, psychology, medicine, spiritism, etc.”
There are some other unusual aspects: you can only buy one book per visit, but you can pay whatever you want for it. And all the money that comes in will be donated to local Spanish-language literacy programs. Helguera also plans to make the bookstore travel, saying that:
I want this to be itinerant because it is meant to reach as many people as possible in this city and perhaps beyond. While we will be located in our current space, we will be bringing mini ‘branches’ to the five boroughs over the course of the next few weeks, making displays in hospitals, waiting rooms, offices where people are bored.
Helguera has given Librería Donceles a homey, retro feel, with plenty of chairs and lamps, and the occasional gramophone. So, though the store will only be up at Kent Fine Art for two months (September 12-November 8), it looks like it’s been there forever, and with any luck, its New York life will extend beyond its temporary residency. Especially if you go back daily for a new book!
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.