Three Continents, Eight Countries: A Travel Journal

September 9, 2011
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Part one: Guatemala, the U.K. (London) and Kenya

Bookstores and travel are two of the great passions of my life. There are several reasons why I visit bookstores in other countries. In English speaking countries, I like to look for true first editions of English language books. I would much rather buy/sell the first Canadian edition of an Alice Munro, or a first British edition of Martin Amis. I am not a patriotic enough to adhere to the ‘follow the flag’ principle, rather, I am a more of a purist, who thinks that if there is something special about a ‘first’ edition, it should be the true first.

Even in non-English speaking countries there are numerous reasons why I like to visit bookshops. I am always interested in and am often surprised by what English language books actually get translated into foreign languages. If there is an English language section, I like to see what the shop thinks will appeal to English speaking visitors. If I am lucky, I can pick up an English translation of a foreign author or local folk tales that is not easily obtainable in the U.S. As a collector of James Joyce, I am in competition with the Joyce Museum in Dublin to see who can obtain the most foreign translations of Ulysses. (The museum had a head start and still maintains a substantial lead.)

Finally, I also like to ‘collect’ bookstore experiences, in much the way that my son and I used to ‘collect’ the experience of trying different brands of chocolate ice cream. Like ice cream, each bookshop has a texture and a flavor all its own.

1. Guatemala

In December 2010, at the spur of the moment, my wife and I decided to spend Christmas vacation touring the Mayan ruins in Central America. In 1975, we spent our honeymoon in the Yucatan, and after years of unrest it finally seemed safe enough to venture to Tikal and Copan. The tour started in Guatemala City where we were advised not to leave the confines of the hotel on our own. Fortunately, the hotel was connected to a modern multi-level shopping mall, replete with carolers dressed up like Santa’s elves. While strolling around the mall, I realized why we were told not to wander too far off on our own. All of the banks, financial offices and jewelry stores had a least one, often two, security guards armed with large machine guns at the entrance. There were several shops where one could buy not only a gun, but a ‘hide-a-weapon’ device that looked like a large fanny pack.

In the basement level I found a small bookstore called De Museo, about the size of a Walden Books in an American Mall. The owner did not feel the need for a guard out front. About half of the stock was of the non-book variety: posters, sculpture, souvenirs and games. The aisles were narrow, with metal shelving, and it took some searching to find an English language section which was at floor level. I already have two different Spanish translations of Ulysses, so I was hoping for some English translations of obscure Asturias, or maybe a paperback copy of Tikal, a large pulp novel published in the 1980s that I have been unable to find in an easily portable soft cover edition in the U.S. What I found instead were mostly business self-help books of the Stephen Covey variety with a few James Patterson and Danielle Steel thrown in for the literati.

The Spanish language section was much more interesting. There were lots of Asturias and other Spanish writers, but no first editions, as well as Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly and David Balducci in Spanish translation. The biggest surprise was a Judaica section which had a larger offering of Talmudic studies and Jewish Mysticism than my local independent bookstore on Long Island. This was one of the few times in my life that I walked out of bookshop empty-handed.

Once we left the big city, the only bookshop I saw was in Panajachel a small village in the Lake Atitlán district, popular with American counterculture folks who left the U.S. in the Viet Nam era never to return to their native land. Most of the English language books here were my other least favorite category – New Age. When you go to Central America, leave your T-shirts home, and pack some extra reading. It is much easier to buy interesting T-shirts than worthwhile reading material.

2. Kenya via London:

In mid-February my twenty-something daughter and I left for a long awaited Safari in Kenya. We had an unexpected 12 hour layover in London. Although the tour company provided us with a hotel room near the airport, we decided to eschew sleep and stretch our legs by walking around Central London after a brief catnap and a shower.

It was a Sunday afternoon so our options were limited. We took the underground to Trafalgar Square and started meandering around downtown London. I spent a semester in London during my college years back in the early 1970s, and went back once en famille in the mid 1990s, so I made sure that our route encompassed Charing Cross Road.

I was a bit surprised that the first ‘book’ shop I encountered on Charing Cross Road was of the adult variety (back in the day these were strictly relegated to back streets in Soho).  But, a block or two down we found Foyles, which was open on Sundays, but very different from the Foyles I remembered from 40 years ago. At that time, it was an unusually large (for a bookstore) shop, with tons of books, some new, some used, some piled on tables, some neatly shelved. I still treasure an inexpensive hard cover collection of George Orwell’s essays that I bought there for a course on Modern British Lit. Now, it looks more like a Barnes and Noble superstore than the Strand and there is even a coffee bar on one of the upper floors.

In addition to lattes, what Foyles does have now, are lots of new signed Modern Firsts by top-notch British writers at discounted prices. One can purchase signed, true firsts by writers like Julian Barnes and Will Self for less than you would pay for an unsigned first American at home. I quickly over-filled a shopping basket, then went down into the bowels of the basement to find the shipping department, where I was pleased to find out it was less than $30.00 to ship a large carton to the U.S. Those would be the last books I bought for awhile.

From London, we flew to Nairobi, where we spent so much time sitting in traffic, that there was no time to investigate any bookshops downtown. We did manage to eke out some time to visit Karen Blixen’s estate, which is even more beautiful than she described it. There was a small book/gift shop in one of the outbuildings, that sold reprints of Dinesen’s books at very inflated prices. There were even a few used copies, but no first editions. For the price of a small souvenir booklet you could buy a nice hard cover reading copy of Out of Africa back home.

On long drives traveling from one game park to another, we passed many small towns and saw many signs that read Book Store. I peeked into a couple, when we had a rest stop, or someone in the group needed an ATM. They really were more bodega-type stationery and copy-shop stores than bookstores. There were a few books, mostly religious in nature, some children’s paperbacks, a few magazines, school supplies, playing cards, etc. But, the market for books is fairly limited. When we toured some traditional native villages, the only books we ever saw were stacked up on teachers’ desks in elementary school classrooms, and they were few and obviously very well read. Since I always travel with a carry-on full of ‘reading’ copies of books, I began giving the books away to locals, as soon as I finished them.

As we were leaving a Masai village, one of the elders was desperately trying to sell me his cattle prod. He refused to believe that I had absolutely no need for one. Exasperated, he asked me what I did need. I said “A copy of Ulysses in Swahili.” We settled on his hand-carved walking stick.

The shopping in Kenya is incredibly time consuming. In the villages, nothing has a set price, and if you are a visitor they open the negotiation at a ridiculously high price. You are quoted a starting price of $80.00 for a $5.00 item. After 20 minutes of dickering, before the $5.00 is accepted, the clerk goes in the back and brings the manager out to approve such a ridiculously low price. You feel guilty until you arrive at your hotel and see the same item in the hotel gift shop for $4.50. The fact that there were no books to bargain over was probably a blessing in disguise. If they ever decide to sell books, the first thing they would do is remove the dust jackets to eliminate the list prices.

I did experience book buying withdrawal, so I took advantage of the 2 hour stop over at Heathrow, and picked up some more British firsts to throw into my almost empty carry on.

By the way, the animals and the game parks are awesome.

To be continued next issue with Part two: Central/Eastern Europe…

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3 Responses to Three Continents, Eight Countries: A Travel Journal

  1. Joanne Hoefer
    September 13, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    I do the same I have been in shops from Europe, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Sudan
    Pacific Islands,China, Japan Mexico, Tasmina, New Zealand and Australia.
    Experience pretty much the same, however some european dealers nasty and rude, some Mexican don’t respond to your questions, as for Mexico I travel to the central part i.e. 3 hours south of Guadalajara and security is the same there. One day shopping in Morelia this past June 21 guys got gunned down two blocks from the store I was shopping in. What the lesson in all this is of course is you see and learn a lot along the way see a lot of interesting things and it sharpens your eye. JMHO.

  2. September 13, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    I wish I could make money buying books from Foyles!

  3. September 19, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    Great post! I love to travel and when I do I inevitably end up in bookstores. But due to my specialty I find museum shops the most profitable. The lesson I learned in SE Asia a few years back is to ship books home ASAP. I lugged a bunch of books around in my backpack for a month only to have them lose my bag on the return flight from Singapore. Travel insurance covered my costs but those were miniscule compared to what they would have realized back home. Good to see a fellow CABS’08 alum writing for The Standard and I look forward to reading about your further adventures next issue!