Every time I go to the shopping center nearby my home, I check out its three bookstores. I like to thumb through the same books that were there in my recent visits, chuckle at some of the prices, marvel at the empty shelves, resent how books have lost ground to office supplies, and – just for fun – ask for books that I know they likely don’t have. I’m a book junkie, I’m always looking for a book. What book? Any book will do, it’s just an excuse to go into bookstores. And due to the exchange controls the target of my hunt doesn’t change frequently, because it can be very difficult to find – or afford – that book.
My last excuse book was Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow. Mishima is not well known in the Spanish-speaking world, but he’s one of the four or five most famous Japanese writers of the last hundred years: far from obscure. His books have been in print in Spanish for decades, and are easily found in Latin America.
The book hunting experience varies across bookstores. My search began at Tecniciencia – the largest bookstore chain in the country – where shelves are mostly empty, something they try to disguise by arranging books with the covers facing out. It’s a sad place. They seem to have depleted their stock of imported books, and the don’t seem to be getting new ones.
After being told they don’t have any books by Mishima in their stores or website, I asked out of curiosity for some Latin American classics. In none of their 24 locations will you find a copy of García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad, or Vargas Llosa’s La ciudad y los perros. Ok then!
In Muchoslibros, a smaller chain and better stocked than Tecniciencia, another consequence of the exchange controls is on full display. Until recently they had a decent selection of imported books at low prices by today’s standards, with some priced at VEF 300. In the same shelf, others cost up to sixty times as much.
It’s one of the distortions engendered by the controls: books imported with the low-rate dollars of official markets can be very cheap, while books imported with black market or SIMADI dollars cost dozens of times more.
The independent bookstores that have survived until today seem to be weathering the storm better than the chains, at least in terms of stock. But even in those, options have been dwindling fast. Rummaging through the shelves is like going to a restaurant with a set menu, where you have to eat whatever the chef felt like cooking that day. It’s a menu that lasts for several months.
It’s like Los Amigos Invisibles once said: esto es lo que hay.
Imported books come in lots of limited titles. In the past couple of months, for example, bookstores seem awash with copies of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. A few months ago it would have been hard to find. Today, it’s everywhere. And just like that book reappears, others disappear.
Because I’m a weirdo, I’ve been asking in bookstores for a book I already own, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. It was a sort of test, to see how bad things were in Venezuelan bookstores. 2666, published in 2004, it’s a critically acclaimed, posthumous novel of one of the most celebrated Latin American writers of recent times. It should be reasonably easy to find in any Latin American country.
But not in Venezuela. Bookstore chains don’t have any copies of 2666. After asking in about a dozen independent bookstores I finally found one – just one. I took all of its thousand pages to the till to ask for the price, thinking it was going to be expensive but reasonable. “Hmm, that’s, hmm, twelve thousand”, said the bookseller, apologetically and embarrassed. That’s 25% more than a monthly minimum wage.
Book prices are riding the hyperinflation wave, up front. The government is not allocating dollars for imports not deemed essential, such as books. The large price gap between cheap and expensive books has mostly evaporated. Cheap books are disappearing and only the expensive remain. Even paperbacks of copyright-free classics, such as Jane Austen’s, can go for a full monthly minimum wage.
I have been trying to read more Venezuelan authors, but books printed here are not cheap either. Paper is not considered an essential import, so printing anything – books, magazines, or newspapers – is now ridiculously difficult and expensive. I balked at the price of some Venezuelan books a year ago, and ended buying them recently at a price three times higher. Patria o muerte, the latest choice of the Caracas Chronicles’ book club, retails for around Bs.4,500.
My search for Spring Snow ended in disappointment, and I didn’t find any other book by Mishima. The problem is not limited to Japanese authors who committed harakiri. Some of the better stocked bookstores don’t have a single book by Bolaño, Dickens or García Márquez, to name a few, and even the über-popular Harry Potter books can be hard to find.
Publishers of books in Spanish – and especially Venezuelan publishers – have been slow to offer ebooks. Still, ebooks have become the last recourse of Venezuelan book junkies. The Kindle ebook reader that I bought four years ago remains the best hundred dollars I’ve ever spent.
Unfortunately for Venezuelans, ebooks are very rarely sold in bolivares. You have to buy them from foreign websites in dollars or euros, to which most Venezuelans don’t have access to thanks – again – to the controls. And the measly USD 300 per person yearly allocation for online purchases was eliminated.
The publisher of Spring Snow has not released it as an ebook, so there’s no way for someone in Venezuela to get that book, or thousands of others.
Well, no legal way. There’s a pirated ebook available online for free, transcribed from the print edition. Unless you have access to foreign currency to order books in print from abroad, here’s the quandary: don’t read the books you want, or download an illegal ebook or copy. This applies to academic textbooks as well.
Wherever you turn, as much as you try, you can’t escape the exchange controls. It’s there with you in bookstores, waving its wand and disappearing books by the thousands. At the till, it decides which books costs 200 and which cost 12,000, with neither rhyme nor reason. It stands beside you laughing when you’re looking for legal ebooks.
As for my quandary, all I can say is that – feeling neither proud nor guilty about it – I’m loving Spring Snow.