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Still a page turner

For decades, Enrique Fuentes, the owner of Libreria Madero, an antique-book store in the Centro Historico of Mexico City, has scavenged through piles of near-garbage every Tuesday morning in a junkyard market in search of printed matter. A 16th century book he dug up there in 1985 paid for the bookstore. “Finding a book like that was like winning the lottery,” he said.

In Mexico City, books tend to exchange hands continually among private collections, bookstores and public libraries -- sold, stolen, lost or often just tossed into the trash. Garbage is huge business within the city, and books salvaged from the dump are sold to junk dealers, who sell them on the street, in neighborhood markets or to used- and antique-book stores.

Although many of its books come from such humble sources, Libreria Madero has one of the finest collections of Mexican history and antique books, which are sold mostly to private collectors, academics and public institutions such as Mexico’s National Library. The tomes that line its walls from floor to ceiling, creating a classy gilded leather wallpaper effect, are clean and well organized.

That’s not the case in the dozen or so used-book stores, with names such as the Labyrinth and the Underworld, housed in giant commercial spaces within crumbling colonial buildings along the length of Calle Donceles. Donceles is one of the oldest streets in Mexico City, graced with cobblestones and ornate wrought-iron lampposts, just a block from the Catedral Metropolitana in the zocalo.

Given the stacks of dusty old books heaped on tables, stuffed onto shelves or spilled onto the sidewalks, you could easily imagine that these used-book stores have been on this street since Mexico was a Spanish colony.

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Although this neighborhood was home to the first printing press on the continent (100 years before the first book was published in the U.S.) and was for centuries the center of Mexican publishing, the Centro Historico again has become a major hub for bookstores.

But with rising rents owing to gentrification, sagging sales because of the global economic crisis and the Internet, these used- and antique-book stores, repositories of Mexican publishing history of the last four centuries, are threatened with becoming history themselves.

Mercurio Lopez Casillas, owner of three used-book stores on Calle Donceles, isn’t panicking quite yet. “New bookstores might cease to exist,” he says, “but used- and antique- book stores will always be around because of people’s longing for the past.”

The past still influences the present in Mexico City, especially within the world of books. As in the medieval European guild system, the used-book trade tends to be inherited. In La Lagunilla, the largest, oldest antique street market in the Centro Historico and an obligatory stop for all serious book collectors, the patch of concrete on which the vendors sell their wares is passed down from father to son.

The used-book stores on Donceles also tend to be a family affair. Casillas’ father and five of his uncles owned used-book stores, and nine of his 13 brothers and sisters are in the book business, including many of the competing used-book stores on Donceles.

Because of the stiff competition, antique books, which were collector’s items to begin with, are increasingly hard to come by. Books published before the 20th century were printed on demand in limited editions for the ruling class and for the clergy in luxurious editions, often bound in calfskin or velvet, adorned with gilt lettering, ivory or pearls and secured by silk or leather clasps. For those who can’t afford such past-century treasures (often costing thousands of dollars), many handsome reprints of antique Mexican books are available.

Next year’s celebration of the bicentennial of Mexico’s independence and the centennial of the Mexican Revolution has local presses busy churning out old publishing gems (though without the pearls).

Some of the most impressive books printed these days are facsimiles of pre-Columbian codices. The Aztecs and other civilizations produced books with pleated sheets of vegetable fiber paper and illustrated with glyphs, often preserved between thin sheets of wood and stored in libraries.

Past-century studio and travel photographs are also being reprinted directly from the pages of used books. Besides providing the publishing world with content, the art, photography and history books on sale within Donceles’ used-book stores serve as a better introduction to Mexican culture than any local museum.

You don’t have to read Spanish to love these bookstores. There is an incredible range of old, odd books in English (as well as in French, German and Italian) scattered throughout the shelves. In Bibliofilia, a Donceles bookstore that specializes in rare, antique and out-of-print books, a 1960s Manual for Refrigeration Mechanics, a first edition of T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” and the 1866 “History of the United States” in four volumes illustrated with steel engravings are for sale at about a third the price of what they could fetch north of the border.

In general, the price of antique, out-of-print and rare books in Mexico City is cheap compared with the prices in the U.S. and Europe. Collectors outside the country often don’t know what’s available in Mexico, and booksellers here may not use the Internet to find out what prices are elsewhere. This, of course, gives the informed, or just lucky, book buyer a real advantage.

Although good deals can be found on blankets spread out along the avenues around the city, in the well-stocked bookstalls on the traffic islands in the Roma, Condesa and Coyoacan neighborhoods or at the weekly flea markets, the dozens of used-book stores lining Calle Donceles, with upward of 1 million books on sale and prices often as cheap as on the street, are still the place to go for one-stop used-book shopping. When you buy a book in one of the Donceles bookstores, no matter how much you pay for it, no matter what language the book is in or where it was printed, you feel good about taking with you a little piece of Mexico City history.

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travel@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bookstore capital in the heart of the capital

To call the numbers below from the U.S. dial 011 (international dialing code), 52 (Mexico’s country code), 55 (the city code) and the local number.

BIBLIOFILIA

Donceles 78-2, 5518-2999, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Antique, out-of-print and used books. One of more than a dozen used-book stores on Calle Donceles in the Centro Historico of Mexico City.

LIBRERIA MADERO

Madero 12, 5510-2068. 10 a.m. to 6:30 Mondays to Fridays, 10 a.m to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Mexican history and antique books. One of the oldest and most exclusive antique-book stores in the Centro Historico.

MERCADO DE LA LAGUNILLA

Located on Comonfort, corner of Reforma, open 9 a.m.to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday (when some say is the best day to go). Among the piles of junk, Mexican memorabilia and antique furniture in this funky outdoor market are some choice books, with prices as low as in the used-book stores on Calle Donceles.

PLAZA DEL ANGEL SHOPPING ARCADE

Londres 161, Zona Rosa, open 10 a.m to 8 p.m. Monday to Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. A select, upscale indoor market perfect for those with more money than time to spend hunting through thousands of books.

MUSEO DEL LIBRO

Book Museum, in the building that housed the first printing press in the Americas, on Licenciado Primo Verdad 10, corner of Moneda, 5522-1535.


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