Cuba Libro

A Thriving Second-Hand Book Trade Fifty booksellers offer used and rare volumes to Habaneros and tourists from their stalls in the 16th-century Plaza de Armas in Old Havana (Photo: Nick Miroff).
One day, in Havana, a friend tells Felix about Pierre Bourdieu. The friend lends him two books published in Spain; the late sociologist’s work is nowhere to be found in Cuba. It is 1997. Felix is a university student in social and political sciences. He is black; he lives in an outlying neighborhood of the capital; he has no telephone, like many Cubans.

He’s writing his thesis about Cuban culture in the 1920s. The libraries have been repeatedly pillaged; chunks are missing from most of the books. Felix copies—by photocopier or in longhand—everything he can find about Bourdieu here and there, piece by piece.

Books do circulate, but slowly, and in small quantities. Writers out of favor with the regime used to be censored. Now they are published just once, with no second printing; they become like insiders whispering secrets to a few friends. Everything is more flexible, more subtle. The books of Zoé Valdés are impossible to find, but La Gaceta, the Cuban literary review, runs an intelligent critique of her novel, Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada.

Judith Pérez, whose writings haven’t been published for a decade because she supported an imprisoned woman, explains: “Book lovers have to work hard to get what they want, just the way you have to look hard for cooking oil or shampoo when you don’t have dollars.”

As for Felix, he managed to find his sociologist. He knows Bourdieu. Precisely, he lists the sociologist’s concepts and rules. “It must have made you sad when he died,” an interviewer remarks. “What? Pierre Bourdieu is dead?” Felix falls silent, trapped in his isolation.

Cuba has thousands of Felixes. They’ve been educated, their critical faculties sharpened. They’ve had access to books. Not every book, mind you, but many more than elsewhere in the Third World and Latin America. At the exit of the Havana International Book Fair, a big socialist billboard bears a slogan recalling the old ambition: “As strong, attentive, and cultivated as ever.” Beneath it, thousands of Cubans loaded with books costing 10 or 20 pesos are slowly moving toward the buses that will take them back to Havana. They’ve bought or stolen everything they could.

The books are piled up in flimsy white plastic bags, the ones the food shops put bread in. These books rarely have anything to do with Che or Fidel. Instead, you see the Kama Sutra, Les Misérables, or The Count of Monte Cristo. Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray’s History of the Commune of 1871; a much-sought-after biography of Napoleon by the Russian historian Evgeni Viktorovich Tarlé printed in 1957; Stefan Zweig’s Joseph Fouché: The Portrait of a Politician (without a copyright); dictionaries; Cuban classics of children’s literature. These Havana folks are comfortably falling back into an old habit: For 30 years, they could buy more than they could read, for almost nothing.

Cuba’s literacy campaign began in 1961. National publishing houses printed 100,000 copies of Don Quixote, illustrated by Gustave Doré. Millions of copies of masterworks were published in mass-market editions and sold for pennies.

Of course, you couldn’t find the great dissident writers: Gastón Baquero, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, Reinaldo Arenas. The writings of those two guiding lights, José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera, were so little published as to be nearly unknown—they were homosexuals. (Both men, now safely dead, are today considered secular saints by the regime.)

Nor were the Soviet dissident writers any easier to find. Literature by living Cuban writers was judged incompatible with the revolution. But the great departed names of world literature were everywhere. The Eastern Bloc paid the bills.

After the collapse of Soviet power, Cuba went on a starvation diet and publishing died. Officially, Cuba has 123 publishing houses, and on average, 9,000 copies of each new book are printed. But new titles are almost invisible.

One of the most famous bookstores in Havana, La Moderna Poesia, has only 50 or so in stock, in a vast and ghostly space. They are all priced in dollars. Many of the Cuban works are printed in Mexico or Colombia; Cuba’s editorial know-how seems to have crumbled during these years of crisis.

Another downtown bookstore, Abel Santamaria, reminds the customer of what it used to be through a quotation from Borges, written in dark marker at the door: “I continue to pretend not to be blind and I continue to buy books; I continue to fill my house with books.”

In the used-book section, the saleswomen sit or stand motionless and mute. One of them, Georgina, earns 168 pesos (US$6.46) a month. She has four children, no husband, lives far away, and doesn’t read, because books are too expensive nowadays. They lie around, aging, useless, or too coveted. They end up buried in their owners’ homes, or reappear as used items sold on the sidewalks. Retired people sell off their treasures for pennies each in the stalls of the little peso markets. There you’ll find, between Stendhal and García Márquez, a whole forgotten world of Soviet novels.

For years, Blaz was a cook at the Tropicana, the most famous nightclub in Havana. He’d get off work at 3 a.m., sleep for five hours, then go lose himself in the library. He still appears on a literary show on TV.  Today, he sells second-hand books on the cheap in his own store, between a china shop and a shoe store. This little old man gives the impression of a drunk—drunk on the dust from his books, and on words: The former cook talks about his books like so many delicious dishes, smacking his lips, and he reads Jules Verne in the middle of the night.

[From a bookstall], pocket editions printed long ago spill into the street, like pieces of a shipwreck. Some rare books are buried underneath. Gustavo has sold these works for 10 years. He was 20 in 1992 at the beginning of the “special period” triggered by the fall of the Soviet Union. Suddenly there was nothing to eat. The dollar hadn’t yet been legalized. Gustavo took the book collection of his father, a learned man, and started to sell it off for pesos on the street: enough to buy bread, some fruit, cooking oil, or soap.

One day, somebody wanted to pay in dollars for an old edition. He accepted the currency gingerly. Six months later, the dollar was legalized, quickly becoming the country’s monetary standard.

Gustavo was one of the first second-hand booksellers to set up a stand on the beautiful Plaza de Armas, a 16th-century square in the heart of Old Havana. His rent is $32 a month.

“Initially there were five of us; today there are 50,” he says. “The government won’t allow any newcomers.” As is the case with pretty much everything in Cuba, the best books are available in dollars, and they circulate discreetly. Gustavo keeps most of his unsold treasures at his home. The would-be client has to go there to make a purchase.

You enter the market for rare or dissident books without knowing what you’ll find. You call a dentist, who knows an engineer, whose family library contains marvels or forbidden treasures. Some sellers prefer to send their clients to a middleman: He sniffs out the prospective purchaser, asks what he wants, makes certain offers. Then you make an appointment, usually after 8 p.m. You find yourself looking at a man who owns the collection that the writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante left behind when he fled Cuba in 1965, or who possesses an English first edition of Alice in Wonderland. Or Alfonso, a melancholy accountant.

Alfonso inherited an important collection of books from his father and his uncle, an architect. “In 1993, I could no longer feed my family properly,” he recalls. “I began by getting rid of the books I didn’t like, but pretty soon I had to sell some really beautiful books on Cuba’s colonial architecture.” His voice trails off.

Middlemen come by. They make an offer: $10, $20, or $30. Alfonso’s books will be resold for five or 10 times as much, often to foreigners. The government is a prospective buyer, too, but in pesos: Alfonso sells nothing to the government.

He has just recently—after much delay—sold an album on Cuban history produced by the Corona cigar enterprise: “It had superb postcards embedded in the pages; it was a marvel that belonged to my father.” Again, Alfonso’s voice trails off. This album will turn up, by chance, in the hidden trove of the reseller of Cabrera Infante’s books.

Books are a metaphor for the Cuban system: They change hands, in stingy little batches, for pesos or dollars, among refined, cultivated people who once had the habit of enjoying their books for almost nothing—as they enjoyed health, the sea, the sky, and the future. A habit now lost.