For a city with 2 million Spanish speakers, it’s kind of crazy that there aren’t more Spanish-language book stores. There’s La Casa Azul, which we’ve often covered here at Remezcla, and the multi-lingual offering at Word Up – but aside from that, it’s surprisingly hard to find places catering to the needs of Spanish speakers.
Enter artist Pablo Helguera.
Last Saturday, the Mexico-native launched his most recent socially-engaged work of art in Red Hook, New York. Librería Donceles, located at 360 Van Burnt Street, is currently the only bookstore exclusively dedicated to providing used Spanish language books for the BK community.
“As a Latino immigrant in the United States, one of the things that happens when you leave your country is this yearning for absorbing culture or finding anything that could restore the things you feel are missing,” Pablo explained while I nodded. Don’t we all feel that way, every single day? “Books for me have that quality, the fact that I could just buy or bring my books and continue reading them and thus, feel still connected to the culture.”
In fact, Donceles serves exactly that purpose. It brings the user into this third space between the home and the workplace, one where you can chill and unwind.
The space is arranged by simple categories: Arts, Science, Economics, Politics, Law etc. Except it also isn’t. At Librería Donceles, the traditional bookstore organizational scheme has been highjacked by hilarious tags, like “Libros Cursis,” “Libros Amorosamente Forrados” or “Teoría Dudosa.” As a student currently in the throes of working on my thesis, my favorite one by far was the section labeled “Tesis.” The books on that section sat thick, green and proud, in all their sturdy, academic glory. “Schools in Mexico take the way you bind your thesis book very seriously,” Pablo added.
“The idea is that, as an artist, you always want to create that which doesn’t exist and bring it into the world,” Pablo explains. He sees the bookstore as a cause rather than a physical space, and semantics are important to him. “Its funny, people have a really hard time understanding the word: librería. They think its a library. I spend my days correcting people. Its not a library, its a bookstore. Yes, it has an educational mission and there is a close similarity but, the bookstore to me, the fact that you can actually own a book is very important. These books belonged to somebody else at a different time.” He highlights this by placing a yellow card with the name of the book’s donor on the first page of every book – a tangible connection to its previous life. “It’s also interesting to see what the [books] have been through,” he continued. “For example, these little writings in the margins. It’s pretty cool, they’ve been used with love and intention.”
The rules at Librería Donceles are simple. It is not about purchasing used books. It’s about cherishing them. A sign in the middle of the space reads “All books are pay as you wish. Limit one book per customer, per visit.” All donations go to Mano a Mano, a non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating Mexican culture abroad. I started with a classic, La Ciudad y Los Perros by Mario Vargas Llosa. A classic I haven’t read yet. Being a Peruvian abroad only makes me want to celebrate our Nobel Prize Winner even more. But then, getting lost in the novel section, I drifted to Don Quijote de La Mancha. I mean, it is the birth of the Spanish language after all, and Miguel de Cervantes did write an amazing epic. But was I going to read it again? Did I want to? Where those molinos that looked like gigantes going to be as hilarious as they were the first time? I wasn’t sure.
Suddenly, the quest for the perfect book to leave with became harder than I originally planned. So I continued eavesdropping my way through the afternoon. After finishing my conversation with Pablo, I ended up listening to a Spanish man and two Mexican women talking about their connection to their home countries.
“But now I feel tranquila living here,” one of them said.
“What exactly do you mean by tranquila?” I asked.
“I don’t know.. I don’t feel anxious anymore about my relationship with home. Its always going to be home but that doesn’t mean I have to go back.” Her name is Gabriela, she’s a member of Pablo’s team and has spent 9 years living in New York City.
Pablo’s inspiration for the project is also autobiographical, as he likes to put it. Holding a copy of La Nausea by Jean Paul Sartre, he explained to me how his brother, now deceased, was a writer and avid reader. “When I was ten years old and he was nineteen, he started studying Philosophy at the UNAM. He was very scrupulous about his writing and his reading. He was very into Sartre and he was trying to explain existentialism to me. I was a ten year-old trying to understand existentialism,” he says while pointing at the green sticker on the cover of the book. Books with green stickers are not for sale.
This is actually not Pablo’s first run at Librería Donceles –its first iteration was inside New York-based Kent Art Gallery in 2013. “I went to them and I told them.. I want to transform your gallery into a business that is dying,” he jokes. At the time, Holguera had been campaigning in Mexico City for months to collect donated books and the grant money to transport them to NYC. Since the stint at Kent, the books have been, much like their future owners, nomadic. Before settling into Red Hook for the second time, Donceles went to Phoenix, San Francisco and many other places. “The first time we did Librería Donceles in Kent Gallery, we had this literature student who was obsessed with Julio Cortázar. At the time, we had his complete works. The student would come to the gallery every single day until he got all of them…He was very funny too,” Pablo recalls.
As I spend the afternoon eavesdropping from conversation to conversation, I finally understand what Pablo explained to me at the beginning of our meeting. Librería Donceles is an experience, rather than a collection of artifacts. Yes of course, books have inherent value. But, their value increases when you can share them.
Ultimately, I left with a very old, faded pink copy of La Vida Es Sueño, by Spanish playwright Calderón de la Barca. I found it while kneeling it the Arts section, deep under Theatre and right next to Fuenteovejuna, todos a una. Why? I wanted an emblematic book that contained words I hadn’t read in a while. Or maybe, since everyone is always looking toward the future, I wanted a book that would allow me to take a vacation in the past. My last year of high school, our Spanish Literature teacher made us memorize the main speech in La Vida Es Sueño. After all, what is life but a big, long frenesí?
“What did you think of it?” I asked my friend on the way out.
“Se siente como si hubiese estado ahí toda la vida,” she replied.
Librería Donceles will be leaving Red Hook for Seattle on May 15th, so make sure to check it out before then. They are open Thursday – Friday from 1pm-7pm and Saturday – Sunday from 12-6pm, with special Tertulia nights on Thursdays.