Mexico City is a place for readers and writers. As well as its many libraries, the bookshops are a joy for any bibliophile. From the used book district near the Zócalo, filled with antique and rare editions, to the light-filled El Pendulo, with its comfy armchairs and tall plants, often topping ‘best bookstore in the world’ lists. Writing is revered and the city attracts writers from Latin America and further afield.
One of these writers is Mexican author Valeria Luiselli. Born in Mexico City, she grew up in South Africa and has since lived in Spain, France and New York. But the creative force of Mexico city seems to pull her back, and she writes often and vividly about the city she calls home. About the psychological effect of the devastating earthquake in 1985. About the layers of history, from Aztec to Spanish, in the city centre. About ducking into dusty old bookshops and finding quiet nooks to read in the city’s relingos (unused spaces).
Inspired by her curiosity and slow approach to travel, I set out to explore the literary side to Mexico City. Biblioteca Vasconcelos – the most impressive but not the largest library in town – was my first stop. The first time I went to Biblioteca Vasconcelos it was closed. The courtyard was filled with people sitting on metal benches, reading their books outside instead.
On my second visit I had better luck. The security guard at the huge wooden door waved me in, smiling, and I stepped into the ‘megalibrary’, a giant city of books. The layered walkways and scattered staircases mean that it’s hard not to get lost, suddenly finding yourself on a little balcony overlooking the central corridor, or at a dead end surrounded by metal bookcases. As you would expect, there are books everywhere. The irony of bringing my own book into a megalibrary didn’t evade me. But as I sat down and read in Biblioteca Vasconcelos, I let Luiselli’s stories of this city, and so many others, take me on a trip.
In Sidewalks, her debut book of essays about urban adventures, Luiselli shares stories from Mexico City and abroad, places like Venice and New York, where she’s travelled to study and work. Trying day after day to get into an obscure library, or becoming a Venetian citizen just to go to the doctor. Her approach to exploring these cities is unhurried; she takes her time. Luiselli lets her travel experiences unfold in their own time and she’s open to where they’ll take her.
Into the stories of these cities, Luiselli weaves explorations of language and literature, nostalgia and melancholy. As she searches for the grave of her favourite poet in Venice, she considers the notion of home (“But perhaps a person only has two real residencies: the childhood home and the grave. All the other spaces are a mere grey matter of that first dwelling…”). She smokes cigarettes with a doorman in Harlem who tells her that she should leave home as often as possible to learn about her true self. She grapples with the Portuguese concept saudade (closest English translation: nostalgia) in Lisbon by reading Fernando Pessoa.
In an attempt to better understand her own home, she searches for the first maps of the city in the Mexico Map Library. Mexico City is the world’s largest urban area, built on a lake, with contradictions and overflowing boundaries. Spend any amount of time in Mexico City and you’ll find this to be true. At first I found it daunting, its reputation preceding it. But by my third visit, I stopped clutching my bag so tightly on the subway and started to feel more comfortable. I bought vegetables at the local markets, spent time in the libraries and ate tacos on the street.
The city is now more familiar to me, but its contradictions are still glaring. Alongside antique bookshops, futuristic libraries and tree-lined neighbourhoods, are police in riot gear on street corners and a city still marked by the earthquake. “It’s hard not to wonder how it is that the city has not really not fallen, imploded, sunk, plummeted, shifted,” writes Luiselli. But walking around Colonia Roma, a leafy district in the south west of the city, with the sun shining and dog-walkers strolling, coffees in hand, it’s hard to imagine that it could.
Take a look below at Yasmine’s recommendations for the best places to read, buy & love Books in Mexico City.
El Pendulo is a small chain of bookstores with a few branches around the city, the Polanco store is the most famous. With a wide variety of Spanish and English language books, music every Saturday and a cafe serving Mexican breakfasts, it’s a great spot to spend a leisurely morning reading.
With its impressive contemporary design, Biblioteca Vasconcelos, a library in the Buenavista area, is worth a visit for anyone interested in books or architecture. As well as all the books, there are quiet spaces to read or work, a nice garden and a huge whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling.
On number 74 of Calle Donceles, the classic second hand bookshop street of the capital, you will find El Laberinto (The Labyrinth). Their slogan alone will make you want to go in ‘Libreria de las utopias posibles’ (The Bookstore of Possible Utopias). Make your way to the back of the shop – which really is a labyrinth – and you’ll find a good selection of Mexican authors and English-language books. Calle Donceles is overall a book lovers’ paradise, come with a coffee in hand and prepare to stay a while.