The first thing that Pablo Helguera did during his Aug. 5 lecture/workshop at Librería Donceles was to ask all the attendees what their favorite books were. The last thing was to ask attendees to appropriate a sentence from any of the Spanish language titles on the shelves and make short stories out of them.
Such activities will be par for the course in this itinerant Spanish-language bookstore where the exchange of ideas and language takes precedence over monetary exchange.
Not that you can't purchase a book, if you so desire. As a visitor to Librería Donceles — at Listen Hear at 2620 Shelby Street — you are allowed to purchase a single book, at a price that you set.
Pablo Helguera started the first Librería Donceles in 2013 in New York City, where he is director of Adult and Academic Programs at the Museum of Modern Art.
He has since taken Librería Donceles on the road to Phoenix, Seattle, Brooklyn, Seattle and Chicago. None of the aforementioned cities have Spanish language bookstores to accommodate their Hispanic and Latino populations.
And now this Spanish-language bookstore is in Indianapolis through Oct. 22
Helguera was born in Mexico City in 1971 and grew up there. Librería Donceles takes its name after Mexico City's Donceles Street.
Helguera answered the following questions by email.
NUVO: How did you conceive the idea of Librería Donceles?
HELGUERA: I am an avid used bookstore fan and a bibliophile. Also as a Latin American artist and writer, I can't help but notice the scarcity of Spanish-language books in the US, despite the fact that there are millions of Latinos in the country. The last Spanish-language bookstore in New York City, where there are more than 2 million Latinos, closed in 2007. So I felt it was important, as an act of resistance and promotion of the Spanish language, to open one of my own — and show in this climate of cultural stereotyping that every culture is very intellectually complex — that it produces philosophy, science, and literature.
NUVO: How did you get in contact with Big Car Collaborative?
HELGUERA: Big Car [which runs the Listen Hear space] got in touch with me after they learned of the bookstore we were setting up in Chicago. I loved the idea of it traveling to Indianapolis.
NUVO: Can you talk a little bit about the organization of books in your bookstore?
HELGUERA: When we received the donations, we were overwhelmed by the amount — more than 25,000 books. We started to organize them in piles. A friend of mine started making comments about the kinds of books we were finding ("these are from the Marxism of the '70s type", or "here are more of those books that you find on the subway in Mexico City"). So it occurred to me that we should just embrace those unorthodox categories, which are informal but very descriptive. So we have a section titled "libros pésimos" (terrible books) or "libros cursis" ("kitschy titles"). I was trying to embrace the fact that a store is in a way a portrait of its owner, and being as direct and sincere about it as possible is something that would connect best with the visitor.
NUVO: Can you talk of some of your favorite bookstores, bookstores in Mexico that influenced you?
HELGUERA: When I was a teenager and decided I would be an artist, I would go to downtown Mexico City where there is Donceles Street — a street lined with used bookstores. The title came from there. But my strongest experience with used bookstores comes from my time of being an art student in Chicago. I was broke most of the time and I would go to every used bookstore I could find to find interesting books or records. I remember most fondly Bookman's Alley in Evanston. It was an amazing place that you could be at for hours — a combination of someone's eccentric living room with many interconnected rooms. That bookstore finally closed about three years ago. It was so sad to see it go.
NUVO: What kind of events have taken place in the various iterations of Librería Donceles?
HELGUERA: Dozens — readings, discussions, music, everything. We work with local organizations, magazines and individuals to host events. We have an open door policy: we will pretty much open any event that people might want to do there, as long as there is a connection with the bookstore's focus — Spanish language and Latin American culture and issues.