“What is the best bookstore in Bogotá?” This sort of question yields a subjective response and answers vary accordingly. Despite the consistent response to “Lerners” downtown and facing the Eje Ambiental, I continued asking about bookstore preferences. I suspected that in Bogotá, “hidden gems” could be found, bookstores that aren’t deliberately uniform as chain stores tend to be, places that have a unique character and attributes. I wanted to explore the city in search of these places. I just needed somewhere to start.
The moment I had been waiting for finally arrived when after several more “Lerners” I suddenly got a “Merlin.” Merlin? This name was new to me. The university student who provided the name didn’t know the exact address, but he pointed me in the right direction by saying: “It’s down where all the small used book stands can be found. I think it’s on Calle 16 with Carrera 8.” I was not alarmed at the lack of an exact address. For me, one of the charms of living in another country is the adventure of exploring the unknown. After narrowing my search to bookstores with “character,” I was able to compile a list of addresses and set out on a tour that would take me to unknown neighborhoods all over the city.
Merlin is a city block long and three floors of used books – a book lover’s paradise. This bookstore has so much space that on the third floor, where I counted nine rooms, there were two rooms that sat nearly empty: they had art on the walls but nary a book in sight. When I asked for books in English, I was led to a room with a floor-to-ceiling wall of second-hand classics. The first book I saw at eye level was J.D. Salinger’s “Franny & Zooey,” one of my favorites. A quick scan of the shelf brought into view classic works of sociology by Erving Goffman and a bright orange spine I recognized: It was “Chaos” by James Gleick – not your average airport paperback. Merlin is the kind of bookstore where one can spend hours installed in a comfortable, window-side chair without having to fear being shooed toward the cash register by the staff. As reluctant as I was to leave the Merlin, I had other interesting bookstores to check out and thus addresses in hand, I headed to the next spot on the list. Destination: La Macarena.
Entering Luvina, a beautiful corner bookstore with a healthy dose of light, the first thing I noticed was the bar. A bookstore with a bar – what a wonderful idea! The selection of books is limited, but well chosen. On the second floor, with still more light pouring in, I found a small collection of used books in English. The variety of these titles led me to imagine literary-minded gringos who had left behind what they couldn’t carry to their next travel destination. A wooden table next to the window on Luvina’s first floor was calling out to me but I had to move on to the next address on the list. I nonetheless made a note in my notebook for a future date: “Letter writing and red wine.”
Another bookstore nestled nest to the good coffee of Bagatelle is Prólogo on the Carrera 9 with 81. What appealed to me instantly about Prólogo was its façade and the coziness of its interior. Mauricio, one of the bookstore’s partners, helpfully guides guests around the store and cites the ample collection of literature in Spanish as their strength. He then points out the staff recommendation table, an excellent feature I wish more bookstores would emulate. On prominent display were the collected works of Julio Cortazar, an author they had recently celebrated with a reading. Prologo also hosts regular book signing events midweek.
The Calle 45 down from Caracas Avenue teems with used bookstalls and rather crumpled book vendors. A professor at the Universidad Nacional had recommended Dinosaurio. The first thing I noticed when I entered the store, also located on a corner, was a wall of books stacked horizontally. When I asked a staff member about that section of the store he didn’t comment on the unique display choice but instead explained that the stacks in question were “the Colombia wall.” “We get a lot of researchers in here. This wall is all Colombian history and current affairs.” I wandered up to the second floor and was surprised and delighted to find a room of vinyl albums and a turntable for trying them out. I wistfully passed a 70s soul classic by Lou Rawls, vowing to return for it when I had more time and a bigger bag. “What makes this bookstore unique?” I asked the same staff member. He replied: “Here you can find what you didn’t know you were looking for.” Next to him were two piles of books topped by Plato and Felix Guattari, two translated texts I would never seek out on my own but could imagine myself purchasing. I was also pleased to learn that the Dinosaur has used books in English. Accessing them is another story. The back room where they are piled is definitely a task for the intrepid reader who likes the thrill of the chase.
The next address on my list required a northward zag up to the ambitiously named “Zona G.” After stopping off for a quick caffeine pick me up, I enter Authors, a well-stocked English-language bookstore. I realized that Authors was where a friend of mine had done a reading of his latest poems. As I perused the shelves on both floors I noted two features uncommon in chain bookstores in Colombia: ample seating and what one staff member called a “mini-gallery” of original paintings on the walls. The same person signaled fiction and cookbooks as their strength as a bookstore. To those strong points I would add that Authors is a place where artists and poets can showcase their talents.
My “bookstores with character” search ends on the second floor of the Ave.Chile shopping mall. Up the escalators and past the dollar exchange booths, Tornamesa is as soothing as the soft bossa nova emanating from crisp speakers. And in an age of e-books and too much iTunes, the proprietor, Camilo de Mendoza, has carefully arranged novels, hardcover “coffee table” books on a wooden table in the center of the store. There is also a wine cabinet with selections from Chile and Argentina, among others, in case you ditch the travel guide for a Tempranillo.
The vinyl albums collection is neatly stacked next to rows of independent movies, and special edition box sets of Opera as well as an impressive CD collection of hard to find Colombian music.Perfect end-of-year stocking fillers.
My bookstore tour of Bogotá was a delight I look forward to repeating and one I recommend to fellow book lovers.
Merlin – Cra. 8a No. 15-70.
Luvina – Cra. 5 No. 26a-06
El Dinosaurio – Calle 45 with Carrera 22
Authors – Calle 70 No.5-24
Prólogo – Cra 9 No.81A-19
Tornamesa – C.C Ave Chile. Local: 236