Hidden Corners of Mexico City

About a year ago, when I was still living in Mexico City, a friend and I found ourselves in what seemed to be a small town in the middle of the city. It is not surprising to see this kind of thing here—think, for example, of Coyoacán or Tlalpan, actual towns that were at some point devoured by the metropolis and are now part of it—. What I found surprising was that this place was so close to where I lived, somewhere nearby the Parque Hundido, a very famous park surrounded by tall buildings in the Del Valle neighbourhood. One minute we were walking in the city, and suddenly we found ourselves in a cobblestone street, in a small plaza with a seemingly very old church, a fountain and barely any people.

There was, too, a beautiful, small, quirky bookshop in which we spent almost an hour. Then we left, met some other friends back in the city and I forgot about the church and the bookshop. That is until I wanted to find them again and I couldn’t. I didn’t know the name of the church or the bookshop and didn’t come across them while walking around the park.

Now I no longer live in Mexico City, but I haven’t managed to move all my stuff, so I find myself making monthly trips in which I try to fit as many things as I can in my car. Last month I used one of those trips as an excuse to go on a hike nearby. On my way back, the other hikers dropped me at a gas station in Mixcoac, which meant only a 20 or 30-minute walk home. I guess I was overconfident about knowing my way in the city because at some point I got lost in a series of streets bearing the names of famous painters—Rodin, Millet, Perugino, Carracci—. I knew I was not far because the names were familiar and pride prevented me from using Google maps. And suddenly, just around a very modern, normal-looking corner, there it was: the plaza with the church and the bookshop.

As I saw it, I was walking in the city and then I was not. I was somewhere else altogether. To one side, there was an old church surrounded by palm trees, its roof peeling off, its bells in a bad state, ivy climbing up its walls, squirrels perched on its bell towers. To the other side, across the cobblestone street, there was a small plaza with a fountain, a couple of (old) people sitting in its benches and a few, colonial-looking houses behind (one of those was the bookshop!). This time I made a mental note for I had no time to stay: the street was Rodin, just a few blocks behind the Parque Hundido.

And yesterday I went back, this time knowing where I was going, sure that I could find it. And I did. The church is called Parroquia de San Juan Apóstol y Evangelista (Parrish of Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist) and the bookshop is named José María Luis Mora (a 19th-century historian). The plaza is called Gómez Farías after an 18th-century politician. I couldn’t help thinking how cool it is that everything there is named after obscure characters: a historian no one has heard of, one of the only Mexican presidents no one hates because no one remembers him and, let’s put it this way, not one of the most famous apostles.

To get there I just walked past the Parque Hundido—which means “sunken park” because the park is actually in a hole. It’s famous because it’s pretty and because Octavio Paz spent his afternoons there. Or perhaps because Roberto Bolaño said he did in his novel The Savage Detectives. Right behind the park, going East, there’s a strange intersection, and turning left on Rodin street you just have to walk a few yards until you find the plaza. Yesterday there were only three old men scattered on the benches and the church was closed. It is a small miracle to find an empty place in a city like this, so I sat there a while, listening to the birds and wondering how many hidden gems like this are in the city. It was like stepping into a time machine, this place where every building was named after forgotten heroes and thinkers, where everybody around seemed to be old and even the cars parked around were “vintage”. I always find it amusing how little I know of Mexico City.

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Where the Wild Books Are

“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

—Virginia Woolf

Aging and decay are characteristics that generally have a negative connotation. The first is a consequence of the passing of time; the second one, a consequence of use. People grow old, health declines, buildings deteriorate, old clothes rip, electronic appliances become obsolete. But not books. What we think of as a despicable mark in most objects, functions differently with books—more like the growth rings of a tree, maybe because there’s a genealogic relationship between them. While everything we consume tends to adjust to the principles of the new and novel, while we make efforts to obliterate the signals of time in the things we possess, books carry those marks with pride, like windows to past lives.

Unlike new books that come wrapped in plastic and are exhibited among the most varied stationary, notebooks and pencils, on shiny shelves with their brilliant barcodes—old books prefer gloom, dark and silent places among ripped pages and dust. They show their stripped backs and their washed covers discretely, expectant yet reserved, as if they knew that no encounter is fortuitous.

Old books, “second-hand” books, usually have yellowish pages. This colour comes in different shades and it is due to the decomposition of the organic and chemical substances present in paper. Their pages are also thicker— as if they fed on dust or as if they breathed and held their breath each time they’re read through. They look like thicker and bigger than those other, thinner volumes, with their white and perfectly pressed pages,  the ones we can find in regular bookshops.

Second-hand bookshops, nhave a characteristic smell, something between decay and humidity. Even when there are common smells to all books, each one has its own essence, a particular fragrance. An investigator from London University College, Cecilia Bembibre, gathered information about these smells and found more than thirty aromas, among which were wood, citrus, chocolate, body fluids and musk. Each book’s smell reveals something not just about its paper composition, but also about the use it has been given, the kind of storage it has gone through and maybe even about its most private history.

Some other marks also reveal part of this history. The most interesting are, for me, stamps, names and dates scribed on a book’s first pages, as well as underlined paragraphs and notes on the margins. It is common to find that many books on second-hand bookshops and thrift stores used to belong to a library. To mark this, it was usual to stamp ex libris on the books, a Latin phrase meaning “from among the books of”. This phrase is most commonly found on the first blank page and it is probably the mark that offers most information about a book’s precedence.

Other books have simpler marks— inscriptions on pencil or pen, in the calligraphy of the first owner, maybe her or his name, maybe a date. It is also possible to find books dedicated to someone, as a gift, or editions signed by its author. Even when much data can be inferred from these marks (if the writing is big or small, inclined, thick or thin), notes and underlining are much more revealing. From light underlining with pencil to highlighting in fluorescent ink, asterisks, brackets, notes on the margins—they are all vestiges of first reading, of an specific personal experience in other time and place.

Maybe to go through the pages of an old book and trace with our finger those parts where a pencil or a pen signalled an idea long ago, a revelation, a connexion, is a form of time travelling. With a bit of luck, books that guard other type of testimonies can be found: old papers, bookmarks, postcards, stamps, supermarket receipts. The most enigmatic experience I have had with a second-hand book happened three years ago, in Cambridge. There are several old-books stands in Old Market Square to which I used to go often. Once I found an old edition of Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. The edition was dated 1986 and had a small stamp on blue ink that read A. N. E. Harris—that is all I realised when I bought it and it took me more than one year to read it, during which the book stayed on a pile with many other books I had bought impulsively.

When I finally opened it again, I discovered a little photograph between pages 250 and 251 in which appeared two people, a young man and a young woman, both with blond hair and similar traits, maybe siblings, wearing thick jumpers, smiling and looking at a point above the camera. The photograph is a bit smaller that a Polaroid and the colour is faded. There are not other marks in the book, except for an underlined quote: “He waited day after day, saying that it was perfectly absurd to expect, yet expecting”.

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If one of those people owned the book, if one of them was A. N. E. Harris, if the picture was there by mistake and was looked for after, if it was there for a specific reason and if it had something to do with the quote underlined, are questions I still ask myself. All those questions lead me to think of the place where I found the book and of the process of selection it must have gone through, to end up between all those other books, piled on tables and inside boxes on the floor. What usually happens with that kind of bazaars is that they also place some empty boxes nearby so people who want to get rid of books can leave them there.

Second-hand bookshops work in a similar way, as refuges for books that have started to overflow their owner’s bookshelves or that have been replaced for newer editions. Sometimes bookshops look actively for them, especially those that specialize on rare editions. Whatever the reasons are for someone to get rid of a book, many of them end up in these temporary homes, organized and classified by booksellers that know every corner of their shops and their inventories, by titles and authors and themes and genres, wonderful people that end up acquiring a mysterious air and a slight smell of humidity.

Many of the biggest bookshops sell almost the same kinds of books; it is easy to go there and find something that we already knew we wanted. But in second-hand bookshops there is no way to know what we will find— it is like the labyrinth like corridors, the dust and smell confound us and take us to books we didn’t know we were looking for. These encounters, unexpected but never casual, allow is to think of reading as an experience and not just as an acquisition. Old books show us the intimacy of the act of reading. They show themselves as permeable bodies, subject to time and atmospherically conditions, bodies in which almost all marks are indelible. Of course it is possible to read on many devices, but it would be naïve to think that where we read from does not affect our experience of the text. Because if we think of a book as a container, we should think of it as a container from which we not only take, but as one in which we also leave things, sometimes accidentally.