Truth be told, it’s by no means an easy proposition.
You’d think, what with a metro population closing in on 10 million, and what with the ever-madder scramble for university degrees and other credentialisms that inevitably accompany a surging labor market, bookstores in Lima would be, if not a growth industry, at least a plausible business venture. The more so, since Amazon.com and its ilk have exactly zero presence in Peru—mainly due to Peruvians’ deep-seated distrust of the never-leave-your-couch computerized commerce so beloved by gringos.
I mean, hey: somebody’s got to supply all those newly educated limeños with their secrets-to-success motivational manuals, HTML para Dummies, and 50 sombras de gris knockoffs, ¿verdad?
Sadly, this plausible-seeming scenario runs aground on two shoals: money, and culture.
First, money. The reality is, books are criminally expensive in Peru. Scandalously, feloniously so.
In Lima, a new paperback might cost 85 soles. In relative terms, that’s 10 percent of the minimum monthly salary of S/.850.
For comparison, a minimum-wage worker in the U.S. makes approximately $7.25/hour x 40 hours x 4 weeks = $1,160 per month.
Think the check-out workers at Wal-Mart are going to part willingly with $116 to thrill to the frictional ditherings of Anastasia and Christian Grey?
Then there’s the culture problem, which is downstream (or possibly upstream) from the money problem. Put baldly, Peruvians don’t read. And if they do, they don’t read books.
This is cause for much head-hanging and breast-beating among citizens in the land of the Incas, and rightly so.
Statistics in Latin America tend to be even more unreliable than elsewhere in the West, but to hear one of the higher-ups from Peru’s Ministry of Culture tell it, Peruvians get through on average just 0.86 volumes per year, with only 35 per cent being habitual readers. A survey by Universidad La Católica, Peru’s top institution of higher learning, is even more dismal: it finds just 16 percent of folks read daily, with over 30 percent of the 45-and-ups admitting they never read at all.
Not a hopeful sign, if you’re a fledgling democracy struggling to promote informed citizen decision-making.
Of course, in fairness to Peruvians, they’re mostly not to blame for this. Peru’s educational system is a train wreck: there’s no other word for it. A 2016 Ministry of Education survey found just 15 percent of eighth graders understand what they read. (By contrast, their U.S. peers, who enjoy some ten times the per-capita educational spending, boast an impressive 34 percent.) With so few teachers inculcating good habits in their charges, it’s a wonder those charges end up reading at all.
Meanwhile, public libraries in the Peruvian capital are so tiny and so under-funded (and -promoted) as to be essentially nonexistent. I lived in Miraflores for two years before realizing the municipality even had a library.
Finger-pointing aside, what’s certain is, booksellers in Lima have their work cut out for them. Most folks aren’t big on reading, and those who are, generally lack the money to do so.
What to do, then, if one is a book junkie in Lima? Especially if one would like to eat and pay the rent as well?
Here the inveterate reader finds himself confronted with two paths: legal, and illegal.
The illegal is, obviously, the easier, cheaper route. But as with all things in life, what one saves in money, one inevitably loses in time.
In downtown Lima, there exist two large book markets: Quilca and Amazonas. The former is close to the Plaza San Martín, and comprises most of Jirones Quilca and Camaná, while the latter is in Jirón Amazonas off Avenida Abancay, just before one crosses the Rímac River.
Both these markets are informales, which means unregulated—and hence full of pirated books. There are, to be sure, normal tomes here too, both first- and second-hand, but for most limeños, these are places one goes to cop low-quality Xeroxes of the latest novel or political scandal-sheet, all for a fraction of the cost in a legitimate bookshop.
The drill runs as follows. You go in, asking the proprietor for such-and-such volume. She—it’s usually a she—calls you “amor” or “lindo,” or some such, and then proceeds to scurry around in search of said work amidst mounds of utterly chaotic stacks. She may even disappear around the corner, to obtain the book for you from one of her competitors. (Lima booksellers are all in cahoots with one another.)
Next begins the haggle. If you’re not clued-in to Lima’s reality of libros bambas—pirated copies—you might naively assume that the shrink-wrapped treasure in your hands is a bound original, and so pay full price. Smart shoppers, however, always open the wrap, and, after flipping through to make sure all the numbered pages are there, in sequence (quality control is low-to-nonexistent in Peru’s black market), commence their negotiations with a low bid. Say, ten soles.
From there, begins the time-honored commerical tango (or in Peru, cumbia) of buyer and seller, wedded in an eternal union of opposites.
Now, the truth is, if the physical quality of books doesn’t matter much to you, you can get some killer deals in this manner. Especially with Peruvian writers, or best-sellers on trendy topics. Looking for Mario Vargas Llosa? Or a Spanish version of the Steve Jobs bio? Or Fujimori-anything? Look no further. Through hard bargaining, I’ve frequently walked off with six months’ reading material for about $10.
For other subjects, however, you have to bite the bullet and head to a formal bookshop. Ibero, Crisol, Zeta: outposts of these and similar chains dot Miraflores and other moneyed districts. Here, prepare to find a selection that’s generally limited: trashy best-sellers, plus Spanish translations of works that you can find in the English original for half the price. A kind of Peruvian B. Dalton or Waldenbooks, for those who remember long.
However, should you find it absolutely imperative that you get your hands on that latest novel by Javier Marías, or a scholarly study of the Guerra del Pacífico, there are a few—very few—options to meet your craving. They include, in no particular order:
1. El Virrey
Calle Bolognesi 510 (Miraflores) 713-0505
Probably the best overall bookstore in Lima. Barnes-and-Noble-level selection, with a café and frequent author readings.
2. El Virrey de Lima
Pasaje Nicolás de Rivera (Lima Centro) 427-5080
Formerly associated with the Miraflores Virrey, this friendly shop has an outstanding collection of Latin American history.
3. Librería Cultura Peruana
Calle José Galvez 124 (Miraflores) 444-1590
A hole in the wall carrying works on Peruvian history and culture and little else. But the proprietor is knowledgeable and will help you get ahold of even recondite tomes.
4. Librería-Café Fondo de Cultura Económica
Calle Esperanza 275 (Miraflores) 242-3072
Run by the Mexican government, this shop sells cheap editions of classic works in Spanish published by the associated editorial firm. They also have good, if somewhat pricey, menú lunches.
5. Crisol Jockey Plaza
Av. Javier Prado Este 4200 (Surco) 436-0680
The biggest and best of the Crisol chain stores, with good, cheap editions of Latin American literary classics.
6. Crisol Óvalo Gutierrez
Av. Santa Cruz 814 (Miraflores) 221-1010
Similar to the Jockey Plaza branch, but with an extensive kids’ area, complete with bean bags.
7. Librería Sur
Av. Pardo y Aliaga 683 (San Isidro) 422-5307
Literary types will love this San Isidro mecca, with its floor-to-ceiling shelves crowded with poetry and Spanish classics. There are also frequent readings.
8. Librería Communitas
Av. Dos de Mayo 1690 (San Isidro) 222-2794
Another serious contender for Lima’s best bookstore, with an unbeatable selection and helpful staff. The politics section is strong.
Finally, what to do if your Spanish isn’t up to par? Unfortunately, in that case you’ll find Lima inhospitable indeed, as very few shops stock books in English. Quito, Buenos Aires, and Mexico D.F. may all host expat communities sufficiently sizeable to justify at least one English-language librería, but in Lima, no one has yet floated this as a viable business venture.
So until that happens, it’s time to crack open that Spanish grammar. Manos a la obra, huevón…