For several years I have had the idea of creating a chain of mini-bookstores throughout Mexico and Central America. These micro-businesses could be located in a corner of a cafe or restaurant, where the proprietor could buy and sell used books of various and sundry types. The initial inventory could be donated by generous Americans and delivered by tourists passing through the area. Subsequent visits by tourists could supplement the inventory and encourage the proprietor to keep the business going for the benefit of the community.
I got the idea from two different places I visited while travelling in Central America. The first was a restaurant in Antigua, Guatemala which had a reading room off of the foyer containing scores of books and a couple of comfortable reading chairs. It was obvious, to me anyway, that the bulk of the paperbacks had been donated or discarded by tourists, many of them appearing to have been around the world themselves–tattered, water-damaged, with multiple earmarks. I recalled that most hostels and hotels on the established tourist route have a shelf or two of books like these–treasured reads that have been abandoned to make more room in the backpack.
The second location that inspired me was a corner store in a small Mexican town, perhaps Valladolid, in the Yucatan. I had been wandering in the mid-afternoon heat awhile when I happened upon this clean, spacious cafe a block off the main square. It had a big-screen TV and perhaps AC, at any rate it was a welcome sanctuary for this weary soul. As I sat there relaxing I noticed a number of local youths stopping by, and I realized that this was a sanctuary of sorts for them as well. It was years later that the memories of these separate experiences coalesced to form a vision for me of sanctuaries; sanctuaries for both travellers and locals alike who wanted to escape into the world of literature.
Another factor which influenced me regarding this dream of mine was the realization of the scarcity of bookstores throughout Latin America. Whenever I did happen upon a bookstore, the prices were exsorbitant even by American standards. How can a person develop and maintain literacy if they cannot afford books?
My first idea was to simply donate books to the people; but then I realized that these books would inevitably melt into the populace and end up gathering dust on someone’s shelf somewhere. By establishing a small used-book store, the people are encouraged to bring them back after they have been read, to be exchanged (with a small surcharge) for new books. In this way, not only will the donated books remain in circulation, but also books that have been languishing on shelves in homes might be brought out for exchange as well. Since the initial inventory of books will have been donated, the proprietor should be able to offer them at affordable prices. However, if the proprietor is not willing to buy books back at attractive rates, the amount of books returned may dwindle. It is my hope that enthusiastic propreitors and clientele will develop a self-perpetuating system which will require few, if any, injections of new book donations from afar.
The biggest difficulty, as I see it, is delivering donated books to locations far away. Books are heavy, and most travellers are already suffering from overpacked luggage as it is. To make this work, we would need a small army of dedicated philanthropists, willing to lug 50 lbs of dead weight for hundreds of miles, solely for the purpose of advancing literacy and promoting goodwill. Any takers?