Across Argentina’s capital, between steakhouses, ice cream parlors and pizzerias, there is an abundance of something that is scarce in many countries: bookstores.
From joints drilled into the wall with used copies of works by Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Cervantes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez to elegant buildings with the latest children’s books in multiple languages, Buenos Aires is full of places that pay homage to printing .
The city has more bookstores per capita than any other major city in the world, according to a recent study by the World Cities Cultural Forum, an organization that works to promote culture. With a population of 2.8 million within the city limits, there are 25 bookstores per 100,000 inhabitants, placing Buenos Aires well above other cities in the world like London, Paris, Madrid, Moscow and New York. The closest is Hong Kong, which has 22 bookstores per 100,000 inhabitants.
“Books represent us like the tango,” said Juan Pablo Marciani, director of El Ateneo Gran Splendid, a huge bookstore in the affluent Recoleta district where 7,000 people visit every week. “We have a very strong print culture.
Behind the high number of bookstores, 734 according to the latest count, lies a combination of culture and economy.
Culture exploded along with the economy at the turn of the 20th century, and although the economic road became rocky, ordinary Argentines adopted and retained the habit of reading. To this day, many locals call the Argentine capital the “Paris of Latin America” thanks to its architecture, wide streets, and general interest in the arts, music and literature.
During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, many prominent writers and publishers fled to Argentina, further cementing the country as a literary capital and printing power.
In 2014, there were 28,010 titles in circulation and 129 million books were printed in the country, according to the Argentine Book Chamber, making it one of the most prolific book printers in Latin America.
Many stores sell rare books that are hundreds of years old. At the Libreria Alberto Casares, bookworms can contemplate a collection that includes a French translation by the Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega from 1650 and Gregorian chants on papyrus dating from 1722.
On buses and subways, in parks and cafes, and even in shopping malls, it’s common to see people flipping through the pages of thrillers, stories and poetry, or more recently, new books about death. mystery of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, a case that has rocked the country since he was found shot dead in his bathroom on January 18.
“I was born with paper books and I will die with paper books,” said Aida Cardozo, 65, who recently read “Las Huellas del Rencor” or “Traces of Resentment”, the work of philosopher Santiago Kovadloff. about changes in Argentine society. over the past 13 years.
“Computers are used for answering emails and using Facebook, but not for reading a novel,” she said.
Books are also getting help to avoid the digital deluge. There is no sales tax on books, which is remarkable in a country where most products are slapped at 21% on top of the sticker price. And heavy import taxes on books and electronic devices, such as e-readers, help keep the local printing industry strong. As Argentines get more glued to their mobile devices, customers who want to use overseas retailers like Amazon have to pay an additional 35% on their peso-denominated credit cards.
The use of e-readers like the Kindle is still relatively low. Less than 10 percent of the 1.2 million people who attended the city’s annual book fair last year said they used electronic devices to read books, according to a fair poll.
Ignacio Iraola, Southern Cone editorial director of Grupo Planeta publishing house, said economics make printed books an attractive business for bookstores and make books a popular gift in times of economic crisis.
“A pound costs 200 pesos ($ 23) versus 400 pesos $ 46 for a shirt,” Iraola said. “And the perceived value of a book is much higher.”