Every year when she was growing up, Carime Morales’ family took two days of their winter vacation to Buenos Aires and shopped for books, much of it on Corrientes Avenue, where bookstores, theaters and cafes 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 opted for Parque Chas, the leafy, residential neighborhood with winding streets where she lives.
And his store, Malatesta, has become a hit — part of a boom of neighborhood bookstores, which are mushrooming and thriving even through Argentina’s harsh pandemic lockdown and a years-long recession that has ravaged the publishing and a large part of the economy.
Small shops sprout where their readers are, in residential neighborhoods, keeping alive the rich literary scene that has made Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, one of the cities with the most bookstores per capita in the world. .
“Bookstores keep opening,” said Cecilia Fanti, who opened the Céspedes Libros bookstore in August 2017 and expanded it three years later to meet demand.
Although online book sales also soared during the lockdown, small neighborhood bookstores offered something point-and-click retailers couldn’t: thoughtful recommendations.
“It’s true that we find absolutely everything online, but we only find what we know how to look for”, explains Víctor Malumián, editor at Godot, a small publishing house, and co-founder of a salon popular book for independent publishers. “Little bookstores help you find what you don’t know you’re looking for.”
For Bookish Porteños, as people in Buenos Aires are called, that personal connection makes all the difference. Even though the number of books sold in the country has not returned to pre-recession levels, according to Fernando Zambra, director of Promage, a consultancy that tracks the country’s publishing industry, smaller stores are helping to keep publishers and writers in business – and readers in books.
Morales’s store was so successful that she had to give up her job as a freelance publisher to devote herself full-time to selling books.
“Malatesta is in the heart of the neighborhood,” she said. “The neighbors go to buy lettuce and then stop at the store to buy a book.”
The pandemic has hurt economies around the world, but Argentina was already in the midst of a crisis when it hit: 2020 was its third consecutive year of recession. Publishing, like other industries, had been suffering for years and was hit again when Argentines got stuck in March 2020. The Corrientes Avenue scene, which peaked in the mid-1980s and 1990s, after the end of the Argentine military dictatorship, lost its luster as the city center emptied out and several large bookstores closed.
But with Porteños confined to their neighborhoods for much of 2020, they have turned to small nearby bookstores. And those stores — with their smaller staff, cheaper rents, and nimble social media presence — suddenly found themselves with a distinct comparative advantage over the big chain stores.
The pandemic “leveled the playing field with the big monsters” that relied more on foot traffic and casual readers, says Luis Mey, an author who spent years as a bookseller, partly at El Ateneo Grand Splendid, arguably the city’s most famous bookstore, which regularly features in rankings of the most beautiful bookstores in the world and is a must-stop for tourists.
Nurit Kasztelan, who opened a small bookstore in her home in the Villa Crespo neighborhood in 2009 (aptly called Mi Casa or Ma Maison), only accepts customers by appointment and prides herself on being able to obtain hard to find titles. After more than a decade in the business, she said, she felt “needed” again when the country went into lockdown and sales at her small bookstore soared.
“I didn’t even have time to read,” she said, because “people started buying four or five books a month.”
Small businesses have found they can thrive in Buenos Aires despite the tough times, as the Argentine capital concentrates a mass of readers that industry professionals consider unique in Latin America.
“Argentina may still be in crisis, but there are a lot of readers,” said Cristian De Nápoli, author and owner of Otras Orillas, a small bookstore in the Recoleta neighborhood. “And these are not just any readers, but readers always on the lookout for something new.”
This thirst for fresh material has been a boon to neighborhood booksellers, who maintain an almost symbiotic relationship with the smaller publishing houses that have also sprung up in Buenos Aires over the past two decades.
“There is a huge number of books,” De Nápoli said. “It’s the small bookstores that sort of bring order to this euphoria.”
Circulations for independent publishers typically range from 500 to 2,000 copies, compared to over 10,000 for larger publishers. Small publishing houses therefore rely on booksellers to publicize a new version.
“To interest the customer of the big chains, you have to carry out big marketing campaigns”, explains Damián Ríos, who co-founded the publishing house Blatt y Ríos in 2010 and who now publishes two to three books a month. “It’s something that we small publishers don’t do.”
A small store can organize its offerings more tightly, booksellers said, and carry books that don’t make it to larger stores. The growth in the number of small bookstores has thus facilitated the emergence of even smaller publishing houses, which can have circulations as low as 300.
“We have the same books as everyone else, but the key is that we don’t display the same books,” said Ana López, who runs Suerte Maldita, a 400-square-foot bookstore in the Palermo neighborhood. “Of course, if someone asks for the latest bestseller, I can get it for them, but that’s not what I choose to display, which includes a lot of smaller publishers.”
Whether the reading culture in Buenos Aires is strong enough to sustain the current boom of small bookstores and publishers remains open.
“There is definitely an overcrowding of bookstores, especially in certain neighborhoods,” Kasztelan said. “I really don’t know if there are that many readers.”
But for now, said Zambra, the editorial consultant, the rise of small bookstores shows that “books can still be a thriving business,” especially in Buenos Aires.