Their country has endured military dictatorship, economic collapse and a particularly vituperative brand of politics, so perhaps it is not surprising that Argentinians should still find solace in the oldest of pleasures: curling up with a good book.
The country’s capital Buenos Aires has more bookshops per inhabitant than any other city in the world, according to a recent study by the World Cities Culture Forum.
With a population of around 2.8 million, Buenos Aires has at least 734 bookstores – roughly 25 bookshops for every 100,000 inhabitants. Worldwide, only Hong Kong comes close, with 22 bookshops per 100,000, followed by Madrid in a distant third with just 16 and compared to a mere 10 bookshops for every 100,000 for London.
Gabriela Adamo, who until recently was the president of the city’s annual book fair – an event which draws over 1 million visitors each year – says Argentina’s love affair with the book is related to the wave of mass immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
A century ago, Buenos Aires was the shining capital of one of the wealthiest countries of the world. European immigrants poured into Buenos Aires, creating a multicultural environment in which culture and the arts thrived.
At one stage Buenos Aires boasted two English-language newspapers, various German-language papers (including at one stage a pro-Nazi paper, an anti-Nazi one and a Jewish newspaper) along with a plethora of Spanish-language newspapers, magazines and literary and arts publications. “The book as an object became a cultural symbol back then. It’s something that persists today,” said Adamo.
But contemporary economics also plays a role: books are exempt from Argentina’s standard sales tax – a whopping 21% on most goods – and internet sales and electronic book readers have yet to make inroads on the local publishing market.
Amazon does not have an Argentinian site and import restrictions make it a bureaucratic nightmare to purchase books from international internet sellers.
“Argentinians still prefer to come in and browse for books,” said Antonio Dalto, business manager of the Ateneo Grand Splendid bookshop. “We have a website for selling books, but it only draws a small percentage of readers. As a matter of fact, they seem to use it more to select titles online, but then they come to buy the actual book here at the shop.”
That is perhaps unsurprising, considering the grandeur of the shop’s setting: opened as a theatre in 1919 and converted into a giant bookstore 15 years ago, the Grand Splendid still boasts the beautiful ceiling frescoes painted by an Italian artist almost a century ago. Around 1 million customers visit it each year to browse through its gargantuan 21,000 square feet showroom, or withdraw into one of the old theatre boxes perched for a leisurely read.
“Culture is very important to the people of Buenos Aires. Even young kids read books, we see them here every day. Books for teenagers are one of our biggest sellers,” said Dalto.
Publishers and booksellers say that the city’s book market is distinctly catholic in taste, immune to fads or fashion. “There’s a very particular kind of reader here, with wide and varied demand,” said Adamo.
Argentina is one of the most prolific book publishers in Latin America, and the number of titles published has grown steadily each year, from 16,092 in 2004 to 28,010 last year. The total number of books printed in 2014 was 123m.
Publishing experts have also linked the country’s love for reading to its obsession with psychoanalysis: Argentina has more psychologists per inhabitant than any other country in the world, and according to Virginia Ungar, a member of the Buenos Aires Psychoanalytical Association, the habitual introspection of therapy makes Argentinians ideal readers.
“Psychoanalysis, reading and the arts in general are all linked because they are all an inquiry into the depths of personality. Both literature and psychoanalysis work with the word,” said Ungar, who is president-elect of the International Psychoanalytical Association founded by Sigmund Freud in 1910.
It is not only the market for new books which is thriving: Buenos Aires also has a total of 102 rare and secondhand bookshops, far outranking London with only 68 or Berlin, with only six, and only third in terms of secondhand bookshops per inhabitant after Johannesburg and Tokyo, most of them congregated along Avenida Corrientes.
The city’s unusual hours – people often meet for dinner at 11pm, and shops stay open until after midnight – also play a role, said Ignacio Iraola, general manager of the Argentinian branch of the Spanish publishing behemoth Planeta.
“Buenos Aires is a city that wakes up late and the day stretches out into the early hours,” he said. “Avenida Corrientes is like a long, open bookshop that never sleeps.”
Away from the city centre, local bookshops also thrive. Tucked away in the bohemian neighbourhood of Villa Crespo is La Internacional Argentina, an independent store which specialises in first editions of Latin American authors.
On a recent evening, its owners Francisco Garamona and Nicolás Moguilevsky, both thirtysomething, were ending the day with some bottles of red Argentinian wine in the back room where they run Mansalva, a speciality press that publishes many first-time novelists and poets, as well as art books by Argentinian painters.
“If this was a job we would have got bored by now and quit – our existence is a miracle,” says Garamona. Although the bookshop and Mansalva press barely scrape by, they have been in business for 15 years now, a testament to the unquenchable thirst of the city for books.
“We hold a fair every two months on a Saturday on the sidewalk here,” says Moguilevsky. “It’s really surprising, sometimes up to 500 people come, many of them young kids. And they usually walk away with two or three books that they get here for the price they would pay for just one at one of the big bookshops downtown.”COURTESY OF THEGUARDIAN