Reading in Barcelona

 

The literary and reading culture of Barcelona often plays the wallflower to its architectural scene. Gaudi’s striking, avant-garde designs and Miro, Picasso and Dali’s fantastical artworks arrest the eye and the imagination.

But a few times a year, the book takes centre stage.

On 23 April, Saint Jordi’s Day celebrates the slaying of dragons by Saint George. Instead of parades of fire-breathing beasts and men in armor brandishing swords, it is a peaceful affair. Families, friends, and lovers buy and give books and exchange roses. The streets are lined with booksellers plying new editions of Catalan prose and poetry, and perfumed flowers.

Catalans are faithful supporters of local authors. Yet Catalan literature remains a relatively closed market. Since language plays an important role in how literary and reading cultures are kept alive, the repression of their language in the Franco era is vital to understanding the local Catalan literary scene today.

Boutique and specialist bookstores like Laie whose clientele are mainly local Barceloneses, are both refuges from the daily chaos outside and a barometer of changing reading habits. Damia Gallardo has been a part of Laie’s development for seventeen years, originally beginning as a cashier and is responsible for the selection of books, oversight for the curation of each section, and social media manager.

Gallardo tells me that many of the older generation are used to reading in Castellano, and even now will not read and write in Catalan. “Additionally,” says Gallardo, “before, authors had editors who held a purist vision of how Catalan should be written and read. There were rules and they were adhered to strictly.”

Meanwhile, the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) hosts the biennial Kosmopolis event, arguably the most important literary festival in the city. Kosmopolis’ unique programme offers an array of public activities where local residents, expatriates and culture vultures can encounter local and international writers in the flesh.

Kosmopolis 2004

A festival for the people – the CCCB courtyard transforms for Kosmopolis
Credit: Susan Gelida

According to Vicenc Villatoro, the CCCB’s general director since 2014, “the Civil War meant that a good part of the intellectual society were exiled and this was obviously quite a profound loss. The Thirties were a period in which Modernism flourished, so Catalan culture was most easily expressed by the works of Miro, Picasso, and Dali – preceded by Gaudi and Jujol. Catalan literature is much less visible despite the language managing to survive with only around a million speakers.”

While he reels off famous contemporary Catalan authors who have managed to form a loyal audience both locally and elsewhere – Jaume Cabré, Quim Monzó, Mercè Rodoreda, Josep Pla, Albert Sánzhez Piñol to name a few – he also admits that not all languages may be equally able to capture a wider audience.

Despite this reality, Catalan is evolving in unforeseen ways, and expanding its reading base. Gallardo is pleasantly surprised to see that “the new generation of Catalan writers are playing with the language and making new words and phrases and their own form of the language; it’s refreshing and a welcome development of Catalan.”

It is for perhaps this reason that the city has a healthy appetite for sharing new ideas and being part of the global literary scene. Historically a gateway for Modernism to the rest of Europe, the Catalan capital has long been known as a cosmopolitan city where cultures meet and mix.

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CCCB’s rear entrance behind the MACBA where beat-boxers, dance groups and skaters make the space their own
Credit: Lourdes Jansana

Tucked away in a former monastery turned military barracks, amongst teenagers beat-boxing and kids rehearsing dance routines, the CCCB lies behind the bright white Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art (MACBA). It is also just a stone’s throw away from the Biblioteca de Catalunya, whose traditional architraves and serene courtyard provide a haven from the tourist crowds on the weekend. Located in the Raval, Villatoro is proud that the CCCB is part of this ever-changing, diverse barrio. Although part of the old city, the neighborhood is now home to new communities of immigrants. Physically and intellectually, the CCCB is part of the merging of cultures and sub-cultures that are created as a result.

Teju Cole CCCB Kosmopolis 2017

 Teju Cole at Kosmopolis

Credit: CCCB 2018

In the past year at Kosmopolis, famous scribes such as John Irving, Arundhati Roy, Chimamanda Ngozi Achibie, Teju Cole, PJ Harvey and Orhan Pamuk have presented their work and participated in public seminars and discussions.Villatoro says that for him personally, “to be cosmopolitan is to consider all cultures to be your own, despite the language, geography and history that fundamentally roots each culture in its own traditions.”

Villatoro goes on to explain that “Barcelona is a pioneer for literary festivals such as Kosmopolis in southern Europe, and while the foundations are solidly planted in the city, our ambition is to participate in global literary debates.”

Recently however, the Barcelona literary world faced a setback. During the financial crisis, and with the advent of digital books and increasing access to open-source information on the Internet, bricks-and-mortar booksellers were concerned that reading books would become a thing of the past.

With stores in all the major tourist attractions, Laie’s business model has stood the test of time. Each branch focuses on their specific demographic, and the bookstore’s ability to change and adapt has been crucial to its success.  Headquartered in the neighboring barrio of Sant Pere, Santa Caterina i la Ribera, Laie’s selection of books in Catalan, Castellano, French, Italian, and English span novels, philosophy, history and poetry amongst other specialist themes.gthg

“Of course, sales dropped off and fewer people were buying physical, paper books so we were concerned. But it didn’t last,” says Gallardo. Laie has been quick to incorporate new ways of doing business such as opening an online bookstore and creating a social media strategy to ensure they remain relevant and contemporary. By using technology to their advantage rather than seeing it as their enemy, Laie continues to sell quality books, increase profits and maintain the ambience and reputation it has worked hard to establish.

Above all, they remain true to their original cause of providing high-quality, physical paper books. “Reading a paper book is a personal experience. You need to slow down and think about what is printed. And I don’t think you can replace that by what you get from digital sources.”

The sensation of sitting down in a chair and time passing more slowly, the tactile pleasure from the feel of the paper, and the aesthetic joy inspired by the cover design and style of font, is not easily imitated by digital books. Especially those that have a strong visual element such as coffee table books, graphic novels, and children’s books.

Gallardo is optimistic about the present state and future of Barcelona’s literary scene and posits a theory: “I think you can gauge the health of the reading and literary culture of a society not just by the number of books sold, but by the quality of its libraries. Barcelona has some excellent libraries in addition to some high-calibre bookstores. Also, many families have a strong tradition of reading and writing; both in the cities and urban areas as well as in the countryside and smaller villages.”

And, Gallardo insightfully points out, “a book isn’t just about the writers, it involves the editors and publishers, the designer, the paper and typography chosen, the way it’s marketed and distributed. Of course, you need the writing to be great, but it requires a team to make it something really special.”

More than written words make up a literary and reading culture. A community of readers, authors, and commentators is needed to engage and create new ideas and projects.

Hence, events like Kosmopolis provide opportunities for the international and local spheres to interact in a more structured way. The CCCB attracts these famous authors due to their vision and values which draws many authors. “Despite not being able to pay significant appearance fees, we have personal contacts in our network which has been created over two decades or more. Also, Barcelona is a central hub for the publishing industry, which means everyone in the publishing world becomes our acquaintances to a degree” says Villatoro. “Above all, it’s the experiences of previous participants that allows us to attract such famous authors and speakers for future events. It’s much easier to persuade them when the list of names that attended before is very much worth being part of.”

There’s also the opportunity to interact with other brilliant, creative minds. Villatoro observes that “sometimes it produces a positive chemistry that isn’t always predictable. We know that Kosmopolis events initiated friendships and relationships that have been very deep. It’s not guaranteed, but between interesting people and characters, it’s not difficult to create them.”

Meanwhile, Laie’s intimate, light-filled restaurant and cafe with an open terrace at the rear of the Pau Claris branch, provides the perfect meeting point for Barcelona’s literary, political and cultural notables. Laie has a special section on Catalan politics, history and current affairs, and it’s not uncommon to see some of the political writers enjoying a coffee or afterwork wine or aperitif while expressively trying to persuade their companions of a particular point, or perhaps complaining about the state of the world. Gallardo chuckles: “Sometimes, you can even chance upon conversations between political writers, or see those with completely contradictory opinions, look at the other rather annoyed or even upset – albeit respectfully.”

Apart from these unplanned encounters, Laie offers workshops and events for the public in its Shakespeare Room as well as organising private gatherings. The majority of its clientele are locals that live in Barcelona, or cultural tourists, and students remain a faithful part of the Laie community.

A more cosy spot for expatriates and locals alike, is Babelia’s book-cafe in Sant Antoni, just west of the eclectic, buzzing Raval. Lou Keohane opened the bookstore and cafe in 2012 after relocating from Madrid. She initially found it difficult to settle in her first year in Barcelona, but never had thoughts of returning to Spain’s capital. The different languages and cultures heard in the streets and bars and public spaces of the city felt more open to the kind of life she was seeking. But, she was not able to easily find spaces where those worlds interacted in a meaningful way.

It is on that premise that Babelia was born. Wanting to establish a space for foreigners and locals to engage, the bookstore became a secondary function as local groups formed. Now, Babelia hosts a number of different book reading groups, language exchanges, and community events. It’s a hub for digital nomads, teachers at a nearby English language school, and regulars who drop in for their early morning coffee and a chat with Lou, who still serves front-of-house. She’s deservedly proud of the way in which her book-cafe facilitates a melting pot of readers, writers and students from all walks of life. Lou agrees with her contemporaries that the paperback book will never be extinct.

“We love books, and we want to work with books forever” says Gallardo. If Barcelona’s thriving bookstores, literary festivals, and book-cafes are anything to go by, he need not worry about being out of a job.