During the period of recession and epidemic, the book trade is booming in Buenos Aires
Every year when she was growing up, Karim Morales’ family would take two days of their winter vacation in Buenos Aires and go shopping for books, largely on Corrientes Street, where bookshops, theaters, and cafés created a vibrant cultural scene.
But when it came time for Morales to open her own bookstore last year, she didn’t even think of Corrientes. Instead, she chose Parque Chas, the tree-lined residential neighborhood on the winding streets where she lives.
And her shop, Malatesta, has been a huge success — part of a neighborhood bookstore boom, which is thriving even through the strict lockdown of the epidemic in Argentina and a years-long recession that has devastated publishing and much of the economy.
Small shops are located where their readers are, in residential areas, preserving the rich literary scene that has made Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, one of the cities with the largest number of bookstores per capita in the world.
“The bookstores continue to open,” said Cecilia Fanti, who opened Céspedes Libros in August 2017 and expanded it to a larger location three years later to keep up with demand.
Although online book sales also surged during the lockdown, bookstores in smaller neighborhoods offered something retailers couldn’t point and click: provide thoughtful recommendations.
Victor Malumyan, editor at Godot, a small publishing house, and co-founder of the popular book fair for independent publishers explains. “Little bookstores help you find what you didn’t know you were looking for.”
For the bookstores Porteños, as it is known to the residents of Buenos Aires, this personal connection makes all the difference. Although the number of books sold in the country hasn’t bounced back to what it was before the recession, according to Fernando Zambra, director of Promage, a consultancy that tracks the country’s editorial sector, convenience stores are helping keep publishers and writers at bay. In business – and readers in books.
The Morales Shop was such a success that she had to give up her job as a freelance editor to devote herself to a full-time bookstore.
“Malatista is in the heart of the neighbourhood,” she said. “Neighbors go to buy lettuce and then stop by the store to buy a book.”
The pandemic hit economies around the world, but Argentina was already in deep crisis when it hit: 2020 was the third consecutive year of recession. Publishing, like other industries, had been suffering for years, and suffered another blow when Argentines went into a severe lockdown in March 2020. The scene in Corrientes Street, which peaked in the mid-1980s and 1990s, after the end of the Argentine army the dictatorship lost more of its luster as the city center emptied Many large libraries are closed.
But with Porteños staying confined to their neighborhoods for most of 2020, they have turned to small nearby bookstores. Suddenly those stores — with their smaller staff, cheaper rentals and savvy social media presence — found themselves with a distinct comparative advantage over the big box stores.
Luis Mei, an author who has spent years as a bookseller, says partly at El Ateneo Grand Splendid, the city’s most famous bookstore, which regularly appears in rankings of the world’s most beautiful bookstores and is a sought-after stop for tourists.
Norette Castellane, who in 2009 opened a small bookstore in her home in the Villa Crespo neighborhood (called, aptly, Mi Casa, or Betty), accepts clients only by appointment and takes pride in being able to get hard-to-find addresses. After more than a decade working in the field, she said, she felt “the necessity” again when the country shut down and sales at her small bookshop soared.
“I didn’t have time to read,” she said, as “people started buying four or five books a month.”
Small operations have found that they can thrive in Buenos Aires despite the tough times, because the Argentine capital concentrates a mass of readers who say in the industry that it is unique in Latin America.
“Argentina may always be in crisis, but there are a lot of readers,” said Christian de Napoli, author and owner of Utras Orillas, a small bookshop in the Recoleta neighborhood. “And they are not just readers, but readers who are always looking for something new.”
This hunger for new material has been an advantage for neighborhood booksellers, who have an almost symbiotic relationship with the small publishing houses that have also sprung up in Buenos Aires in the past two decades.
“There are a lot of books,” said Di Napoli. “They are little libraries that somehow regulate that euphoria.”
The print run for independent publishers typically ranges from 500 to 2,000 copies, compared to over 10,000 for large publishers. So small publishing companies rely on booksellers to spread the word about a new edition.
“In order to get the attention of big-chain customers something you need to do big marketing campaigns,” explains Damian Ríos, who co-founded Blatt y Ríos publishing house in 2010 and now publishes two to three books a month. “This is something we, young publishers, don’t do.”
Booksellers said a small store could organize their offerings more narrowly, and featured books not making it to the big stores. Thus, the growth in the number of small libraries has facilitated the emergence of smaller publishing houses, which may have the number of publications as low as 300.
“We have the same books as everyone else, but the key is that we’re not showing the same books,” said Ana Lopez, who runs Suerte Maldita, a 400-square-foot library in the Palermo neighborhood. “Sure, if someone asks about the latest best seller, I can get it for them, but that’s not what I choose to offer, which includes a lot of smaller publishers.”
Whether the reading culture in Buenos Aires is strong enough to sustain the current prosperity of small bookstores and publishers is an open question.
“There is already an increase in the number of libraries, especially in certain neighborhoods,” Casstelan said. “I really don’t know if there are a lot of readers.”
But for now, Zambra, the editorial consultant, said the emergence of small bookshops shows that “books can remain a thriving business,” particularly in Buenos Aires.