In a Basement, Trove of Spanish Literature Blooms

Uruguayan bookseller Javier Molea puts heart and soul into the collection of Spanish-language books at McNally Jackson. (Photo by Silvina Sterin Pensel/El Diario La Prensa)

Last fall, El Diario la Prensa reported that Hispanic writers in New York had difficulty presenting their work due to a lack of literary resources and spaces for the community. Now, in a SoHo basement underneath the McNally Jackson bookstore, a haven for Spanish-language literature has emerged. In the article below, translated from the original in Spanish from El Diario la Prensa, Silvina Sterin Pensel introduces the Uruguayan bookseller behind the bookstore’s Spanish literature section, who explains his approach to promoting a range of Spanish literature, and tells of how a job arranging flowers helped him land his current gig.

With a three-day-old beard and a T-shirt that read, “Repair the world, do not destroy it,” Javier Molea, 42, ran his eyes across the basement-level floor of the McNally Jackson bookstore, located in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood.

Enthusiastically, he selected different works – all in Spanish – and described the juggling acts required to obtain this title and that title.

“My friend Marta brought me this one from Spain,” he said, brandishing “Acabado en Diamante,” a book of poems and texts by Javier Moreno. “I asked for this one from an Argentinean friend,” he said, returning “Cielos de Córdoba,” by Federico Falco, to its shelf.

“I do all that I can to enrich this,” he said, looking around at what one could call his kingdom: the section of the bookstore dedicated to Spanish-language literature.

“I like to say that this is a public plaza, a space for dialogue,” he explained, showing the corner area where once a month, some 30 to 40 people gather to pick apart novels, stories, and other narratives. “Many Latin Americans and Spaniards come, people interested in reading things in their own language or who want to be surprised. They don’t want more of the same thing.”

Javier, a Uruguayan bookseller who happened upon McNally Jackson by a stroke of luck, said he has overturned New Yorkers’ stereotypes of what Spanish-language literature is.

“Certain concepts have become very popular, such as the Latino ‘macho’ man, the Caribbean heat, magic realism, and the authoritarian general,” he said. “But I come from Río de la Plata, and it gets cold there.”

“Here, I give them the opportunity to get to know, at a deep level, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Adolfo Bioy Casares, among many others.”

In his book club, Javier alternates between classical works and texts by talented emerging and promising writers.

When possible – if the writers live in New York or are passing through the city – Javier invites them to the club’s meetings to analyze and break down their writing process.

“Not too long ago, I brought in Yuri Herrera, a super talented Mexican writer,” he said. “He held a great discussion with people who praised and people who criticized the characters in his book ‘Trabajos del Reino.’”

Javier confessed that in using the format of the book club, he has copied other bookstores here in the United States.

“I’m fighting against something that’s very much our own; it’s very Latin American to establish hierarchies,” he explained. “In many of our countries, the writer is ‘higher’ and the reader is ‘lower.’ Here in our book club at McNally Jackson, we’ve put both on the same level and that makes it much richer.”

As the master of his section of the bookstore, Javier said he has complete freedom to do what he feels like, and he takes advantage of it.

“They let me be myself, and I love it,” he said. “I speak English with a Uruguayan style, and I give the activities names that are very Latin American. For example, instead of saying ‘open mike’ – referring to the part of the meeting where each person can express his or her opinion about a work – I call it a ‘payada’ [in Spanish, this means an ‘improvised musical dialogue’]. And starting from 6:30 p.m. onwards, we start chatting about literature and enjoy a good wine. Everyone is fascinated, and it’s much closer to our cultural tradition than the open mike.”

Every day, he embarks early on the trip that takes a little more than an hour and brings him from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to the bookstore at 52 Prince Street, where he stays until 10 p.m., he said.

“I pass the time selecting new authors for the book club, organizing the Spanish-language workshops that we have on Saturdays at 1 p.m., and maintaining contacts with universities, which we take advantage of when they bring in writers and we invite them to our bookstore. This is their space to connect with the people.”

Javier has a degree in literature, and he received training in the industry at famous bookstores in Montevideo, his native city. He eventually managed to be represented by the publishing department of McGraw-Hill, but in 2001, the Argentinean economic crisis rapidly spread to Uruguay.

“I had to leave, and I set out for New York, a place where I had always dreamed of living,” he said.

But his arrival at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore owned by the Canadian Sara McNally, didn’t happen due to his love of books, but because of flowers.

“When I arrived in this city, I tried to become involved in the world of bookstores, but my English didn’t help me, and that’s how I got a job arranging flowers,” he said. “One of the places where I delivered orchids was the Perseus publishing house. There, Sara and I soon became friends, talking over books and literature. When she decided to open the bookstore, she called me to organize the Spanish-language section.”

The move returned him to the literary arena, where he feels at home, but was eager to point out that flowers also have a magical power.

“I prefer to use words,” he said, “but you shouldn’t dismiss what you can express with flowers.”

For more information on the bookstore visit mcnallyjackson.com (Spanish version)

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