Llibreria Canuda, one of Barcelona’s oldest and most historic bookstores, will be permanently closing its doors on October 31st. This comes on the heels of the demise of several iconic booksellers who have been forced to close their doors since the beginning of Spain’s economic crisis. Ancora y Delfín, for example, was open from 1890 until 2012. Their website still features photos of the bookstore taken in 1956 and again in 2007, as well as a map of their former location. The phone number listed is disconnected.
On January 7th of this year, another well-known bookstore admitted defeat. Llibreria Catalonia’s director Michael Colomer posted this farewell message on their website: “After more than 88 years… after having survived the Civil War, a devastating fire and a real estate dispute, Llibreria Catalonia must close its doors permanently. The current crisis, even more accentuated within the book industry, has generated a decline in sales for the last four years, and our circumstances have made it impossible to continue... This irrevocable decision has been very difficult, sad and painful to make.”
This plague of closures begs two questions: Why have so many historic, independent bookstores had to close up shop? And how is it possible that a few—a very few—are still hanging on?
First, let us examine the case of Llibreria Canuda. The shop is owned by Santiago Mallafré, who has spent 47 years working in the shops that were started by his father, Ramón Mallafré. Theirs is a second-hand bookstore that sells “old books, strange books, hard-to-find rare books. We’re anything but a carbon copy chain bookstore!” Mallafré says emphatically. Some controversy exists as to whether or not author Carlos Ruiz Zafón was inspired by the Llibreria Canuda to create the Cemetery of Forgotten Books for The Shadow of the Wind and its follow-ups. “In the past our basement was abandoned, in a state of total disrepair,” Mallafré says. “It was like a cemetery, but filled with literature rather than bones. Zafón used to come into our shops from time to time. He said in an interview that he was inspired by a bookstore in Los Angeles, which is possible, but I doubt that we didn’t have at least a subconscious influence on him.”
Santiago’s father Ramón started his career as a young man selling books from a small stall located at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the Parroqueria de San José y Santa Mónica. He eventually made enough money to open his first store, Llibreria Cervantes, at Tallers 82. “My father opened up on the morning of April 14th, 1931,” Santiago Mallafré explains. “But he had to close a few hours later, in the afternoon, because they proclaimed the Republic that same day! Later, he re-opened, and eventually expanded.” They opened their second shop, Llibreria Canuda, in 1949, at Canuda 4, in a space that used to be occupied by a swing-era basement jazz club called El Oasis. “This has always been a very romantic place, with lots of music, lots of history,” Mallafré says. “Where better to house a pile of old stories?”
Due to the Ley de Arrendamientos Urbanos (Urban Rentals Law), the rent for many older businesses will increase astronomically at the end of this calendar year. The Llibreria Canuda’s rent will jump to as much as €18,000 per month, a price that is simply beyond the realm of possibility for an independently run bookstore and for the other local stores nearby. As a result, the store and its neighbours have until December 31st to vacate the premises. The building’s owners have already sold the entire strip to the Mango clothing company, which will open a new franchise in 2014.
When they vacate the Canuda location, the bookstore will not relocate, so Mallafré and his staff are desperately trying to sell thousands of old books before the end of October. They have had several offers from associations who want to buy all the books in bulk, but Mallafré won’t sell. “They want to take the whole lot at bargain-basement prices, and I absolutely refuse to sell all these incredible books as if they were worth nothing.”
Mallafré says that the sad thing about the closure of an old, family-run bookstore is that it is not going to be replaced. “One new bookshop might close, but that’s not a tragedy. Another chain could move into the same place, add 100 metres more shelving, and stock the same titles as the previous store. In our case, it’s different. When we leave, all these books just disappear forever.”
His store was in serious trouble even before the law caused their rent to skyrocket. He says that the internet has been a disaster for bookstores in Spain. “We used to publish two catalogues every year, which listed 2,000 books with the prices of each, ranging from the cheapest at €3 to the most expensive. For example, two years ago we sold L’Encyclopedie de Diderot, which consists of 37 volumes, in perfect condition for €50,000.”
He said they have not published the book catalogue in three years, because there is no market for it anymore. “Now people can go online, and instead of a carefully compiled list of 2,000 books, they can find a list of two million books. Book lovers all over the country used to wait for the publication of the catalogue with a sense of anticipation. Now there’s no reason to publish, because people have access to more information than ever as soon as they log onto Google. That’s a good thing in many ways, but we’ve lost the specialisation of the past.” He says that the internet has also created the problem of too many sellers and not enough buyers, and that in a saturated market dominated by Amazon and other large retailers, it’s impossible to compete.
Mallafré is a member of the Gremi de Llibreters de Vell de Catalunya (Guild of Old Bookshops of Catalunya), a group that he describes as a “very unified and supportive union that has contributed substantially to the culture of Barcelona.” As its members close their doors one by one, who will preserve this facet of the city’s culture in the future?
But before we give up hope, there are a few historic bookstores that have managed to survive even in the face of the rise of internet shopping, the Spanish financial crisis and the general vagaries of the market. The Llibreria Anticuaria Farré is located only a few doors away from the Llibreria Canuda, at Canuda 24. They have been closed for the summer for renovations, but will be open again this month.
Josep Farré is the owner and founder of the shop. Sitting with both hands spread meditatively across the surface of his desk, he peers over the edge of his glasses. “There are two types of booksellers,” he begins. “The kind that inherited the store from their fathers, and the kind that had the idea and then executed that idea themselves. I am of this second group. I came from 40 years’ experience in the editorial world, so I understand the business and how to survive in the business.”
Farré says that he has always dealt in old books because he knows too well how the mechanism of the market works with regards to the new bookstores. He explains that there exists an economic side and a spiritual side of this argument. “An old bookstore is something magical,” he says. “It is a labour of love to seek out and maintain fragments of our rich cultural past that would otherwise disappear. But besides having a passion for older books, it’s also better business than dealing in new books. The margin is higher. Like all art, there is a certain market for certain things, and a few dedicated and wealthy collectors can sustain a bookstore like this. That could never happen with a new bookstore.”
Farré, like Ramon Mallafré, started out selling books from a stand, in the Mercat Sant Antoni. In the late Eighties he was able to take over the bookstore of another bookseller who had retired, El Sol i La Lluna, which started in the Fifties. “Without the books, of course! I had to find those on my own,” he laughs.
Unlike Mallafré, Farré is not of the opinion that the internet has killed the bricks-and-mortar shop—quite the opposite, in fact. “I suppose you could say the internet is a double-edged sword, but in our case, it’s saved our store. While our main market is Spain, we also sell books to collectors in Japan, to New Zealand, Australia, USA, Brazil, Russia, all over the world. Without the internet that wouldn’t have been possible.”
That isn’t to say that the Llibreria Anticuaria Farré is not feeling the same effects as its peers. The shop used to employ nine people, and over the last few years has had to cut back to only three. “Our market is suffering in the way that the Spanish economy is suffering,” says Farré. “It’s as if we’re in the Intensive Care Unit in the hospital. But the good thing is, we haven’t died yet, and what’s more, we won’t. We’re here so that we can be cured, so that things can get better.”
He says that once the economic danger ceases to loom quite so threateningly on the horizon, people will start using their money to enjoy life again and to learn new things, not just to get by. “We’re in a tough time right now,” says Farré seriously. “But we will survive.”
You can browse both bookstores in October, when Llibreria Anticuaria Farré will reopen, and before Llibreria Canuda has to close.