The door only opened twice in half an hour. Both times gypsies– first a woman, then a man– poked their heads in and asked for “a little bit of paper, please.” Leonor, in charge of the bookstore that morning, told them “not today” before both bid her a cordial goodbye and went back to pushing their shopping carts loaded with magazines and newsprint down the sidewalk.
Leonor and her fellow volunteers part with books easily, for nothing in return in fact, as long as those who take them away don’t plan to turn them into pulp or a quick, however small, profit.
The Associació de Llibres Lliures Catalunya is not a literary-minded anarchist group like its name might suggest. But it is subtly anti-capitalist: its goal is to “liberate” old books from the free market and save them from decay and destruction. For the past two years, the non-profit organization started by local resident Óscar Boada has sought homes for discarded titles, to match book and reader without the connector of money. Money is removed from the interaction to the greatest extent possible. Every book that leaves the Associació bears a stamp inside its cover: “This Book is Free, It Cannot Be Bought, It Cannot Be Sold.”
The quixotic spirit of the Associació meets reality at the point when the bills– rent, electricity, insurance– have to get paid, and therefore they accept, without nudging, monetary donations. “Most people tend to leave a euro per book,” Leonor says. “But there are people who are too poor, and a lot of schoolchildren who come here.” The coins get dropped into a slot in a can.
Like many neighborhoods outside the city center, la Verneda i la Pau in the Sant Martí district doesn’t have a proper bookstore, only papelerías with a handful of recent releases. What makes this neighborhood different is the Associació. A list of instructions posted inside the shop tells the reader to “take as many books as you can carry,” but adds that a volunteer must register which books leave for tax purposes. “There is a kiosk nearby that has a good stock of books, but other than that we are it,” Leonor said.
The Associació is located at carrer Cantàbria 72, a wide street that draws an oddly elegant curve which clashes with the uniform grid layout of La Verneda. The neighborhood was built for the mismísimo Generalísimo Francisco Franco to inaugurate in 1966 as part of his campaign to celebrate the “25 years of peace” since the end of the Spanish Civil War. These are not pretty buildings. These are drab, uniform blocks raised fast on top of fields, catapulting the terrain that had provided landscapes for painters into the impoverished post-war dictatorship. And here they remain, the last line of human habitation before one reaches the gaping train gulch that still waits for the Sagrera AVE station.
La Verneda i la Pau is poor, 60th in a ranking of all 73 of Barcelona’s barris by family incomes in 2012. Ten percent of its residents get a degree of higher education, compared to 27% for the city. It is one of 10 barris that compose the Sant Martí district, the city’s second largest by population with over 230,000 inhabitants only surpassed by the 265,000-plus of the Eixample. But compared to the Eixample’s 138 bookstores, Sant Martí has 23, according to the town hall. The Associació is also the only bookstore for the neighboring Sant Martí Provençals neighborhood.
Hand-painted signs like the Associació’s abound on store fronts. The bookstore is flanked by Bar Cantábria, run by a Chinese family, and the Perruqueria Carles (per homes i nens). Above is the Centro de Tonificación Star-en-Forma, which offers “gimnastica asistida (activa y pasiva), masaje Shiatsu, sol artificial ‘uva’.” Its sign is also homemade.
Depending on the time of day and how busy the Associació is, the gloom infusing used bookstores is palpable in this working class neighborhood. Although only a half-hour walk from the seaside Fòrum, La Verneda is worlds away from the terraces and tourists of the better-known Barcelona. But when regulars gather here after work, it livens up. Some fight temptation (“The complete works of Freud!”) or fire criticism at authors and titles they aren’t terribly fond of. Surpluses of classics like Réquiem por un campesino español and forgotten best sellers (remember El Ocho?) are rife on the double-stacked shelves. But just when that what a waste of time feeling starts to settle in, a book moves like a hidden lever in an old library and … hello, Umberto Eco.