I grew up in the Detroit suburbs, a 10-minute walk (or 4-minute drive… nobody walks in the Detroit suburbs) from the nearest bookstore. I had shelves and shelves full of books, and moving day was a major pain in just about every muscle (including the glutes) because of my book-buying habit. I had no idea that my experience was unusual.
I spent the last six months of undergrad in Mexico, where I slowly slogged through Allende’s House of Spirits and fell in love with Angeles Mastretta. I bought very few books there, mostly because books were ridiculously expensive. I was accustomed to bookstores the size of supermarkets, and suddenly I found tiny specialty bookstores or a small book section at a department store. The selection wasn’t all I’d hoped, either. I thought that was just my city in Mexico, but I learned that it wasn’t so rare. While traveling within Mexico, I often traded fiction with my fellow travelers because books were so expensive and rare. When I found the Librería Cafetería Teorema in Puebla, I was in heaven. It was a full bookstore and cafe with live music at night. Still, I didn’t buy books there. Books cost almost as much as hotel rooms, and I had finite funds that had to last 6 months.
After grad school, I found myself living along the U.S.A.-Mexico border. While this region is technically inside the U.S.A., it feels like a buffer zone that’s part of neither country. The first bookstore opened there 18 months after my arrival, and I relished my time at Barnes and Noble in McAllen. I no longer had to volunteer to go to Austin just to smell and touch books at The Book People. (I still have dreams about that heavenly bookstore.) With a stable job, I was able to load up on months of literature at a time, which friends supplemented by mailing me care packages.
In Argentina, there are nice bookstores, but the books are ludicrously expensive. I was talking to my stepbrother about this the other day. He and his girlfriend, visiting from Buenos Aires, lost themselves in the Strand. They said they could dedicate a whole week to the store… about as much as they would need for every artwork in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We discussed the disparity between book availability in the U.S.A. versus Argentina, and came to the conclusion that the book-buying market is smaller in Argentina than it is in the USA. It’s not because fewer people know how to read. I just looked up the literacy rate, and it looks like the U.S.A. (99%) and Argentina (98%) are neck in neck, with Mexico not too far behind (93%). (Yessiree… I looked it up on Wikipedia, so it must be true.) I assume, then, that the difference is more a question of disposable income. With the average wage in both Argentina and Mexico being about 1/4 the average wage in the U.S.A., and books in both countries being more expensive than they are here, it makes sense that books might become luxury items.
I fully appreciate that my parents passed along their book reverence to me. In high school, I was proud of the fact that my classmates chided me for using big words. As a teacher, I was quick to hand a dictionary to a student instead of giving them an easy definition. (The first time, the incredulous high-schooler looked at me and exclaimed, “Yo, miss! That’s mad words!” They eventually came to like dictionaries.) In one particular instance, I flipped out when a student chucked a small book at another student’s head… not because it could have hurt the student, but because it’s absolutely not acceptable to damage books in that way.
I am lucky to live in a place in which books are so readily available and affordable. I work just a few NY blocks from two monumental bookstores (both of which are larger than my apartment building). I don’t even have to go to bookstores to buy books, since I can download them anywhere I have wifi access. It breaks my heart to know that amazing writers in other countries don’t get their break, because it’s nearly impossible to get published. Even worse, Fifty Shades of Grey is translated into Spanish and is selling like hotcakes while these authors go unnoticed.
I took the photos attached to this post in El Ateneo, bookstore in Buenos Aires that used to be a theater. It’s gorgeous, but they still didn’t have the Ana María Matute books I sought. *sigh* That bookstore mocks me.