Tag Archives: literacy

Half a Dream Come True


For many years I had a dream of starting a chain of mini-bookstores throughout Latin America. I have spent a lot of long vacations traveling in Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Peru, and I always noticed that tourists like to leave behind their used books. I also noticed that buying books in these countries was very expensive, even by USA standards. One day I found a great little cafe from which I could escape the heat, perhaps in Valladolid, Mexico, where I noticed that the local youths seemed to gather. That is when I began to think how great it would be for a cafe like that to provide books for the people to buy cheaply, and sell back to them in order to purchase more. This, I thought, would provide an economic incentive for the restaurant owner, and also ensure the re-circulation of books throughout the community.

When I first joined Facebook, I thought this would be a perfect forum for discussing my ideas, and perhaps develop an organization for promoting literacy in the manner I had in mind. I started a Facebook Group called “Promoting Literacy in Latin America” and most of my friends joined up, and I also made new friends with similar interests. Strangely, however, I couldn’t get more than three people to post anything. I couldn’t get a discussion started. This was disappointing, but I still thought I would implement my plan at the first opportunity.


My next setback came when I actually started planning my next trip to  Mexico.  Thats when it dawned on me that tourists, and especially backpackers, don’t want any extra weight to carry—and books are very weighty.  While they may carry one or two paperbacks that they are reading, the amount of books necessary to fuel my plan would be too much.  I felt my dream dissapating, but I still had respect for it, as my personal belief is that dreams come from God, and are a clue to the future if nothing else.  So I kept several boxes of books available for my trip to Mexico.

Living in Tucson, I felt that the most logical town to implement my plan was Magdalena, Mexico, just an hour south of the border. So I drove to the center of Magdalena, parked on the plaza by the church, and walked around looking for candidates. Most of the cafes were small, smoky and serving beer—not the type of place to promote reading in youths. Then I found an ice-cream shop with plenty of room and I approached the lady at the counter with my idea, assisted by a typed and illustrated description I had prepared for that purpose. She liked the idea, but the owner of the shop was not due back for a while, and in the meantime she introduced me to the holistic medicine lady next door. From the herb shop I was directed to another cafe that apparently already was set up to sell books as I had described. Walking a few blocks away, I found Cafe Sed, where I was surprised to find a perfect example of what I had been dreaming of.

I spoke to the manager in charge, who was animated to discover my interest, and spent the next half hour describing the business structure of their operation. Cafe Sed is just one of several operations created to educate and support the youths of three orphanages in the area. You can read about them at these websites: http://www.cvemx.org,





Cafe Sed is a small operation compared to the meat processing business, part of which is located next door. I got a quick tour of how they process organic jerky, and it was quite impressive, the youths were at the meat-stick stuffing stage when I was there. These are all older teenagers getting excellent career knowledge and experience. The operation was spotless, and strictly following high food safety standards. Apparently the whole meat business was designed and developed by an American doctor of meat science, a volunteer and significant donor.

Well, I found a place to donate my books after all. I don’t know what part this experience will play in my future, but I felt that I was led to this organization for a reason. Guess we’ll just wait and see.

Promoting Literacy in Latin America

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?

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