Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Bookery in Socorro

After buying asaderos at Licon’s Dairy, I drove Laura, Aaron, and Isaac to one of my favorite independent bookstores, The Bookery in Socorro, on the east side of El Paso.  The Bookery is walking distance from the historic Socorro Mission, one of the three missions on the Mission Trail.

The Bookery is an adobe labyrinth stuffed with books on tables, books on the floor, books overflowing on bookshelves.  It is easily the best place for buying Latino literature in El Paso, but this bookstore has so much more: young adult books, history books on El Paso and the Southwest, hundreds of picture books for kids, a menagerie of stuffed animals, Mexican calacas, Christmas decorations, trinkets hanging from vigas on the ceiling.  After a dusty trek through the desert, I feel as if I’ve walked into a treasure room whenever I visit The Bookery.

But as I chatted with Margaret Barber, longtime owner, I worried.  She told me this has been her toughest year financially.  Of course, her bookstore has suffered as most of the book industry has suffered.  People are reading less.  Young adults, and others, prefer to download books electronically, rather than holding books in their hands.

To add to Margaret’s troubles, some in El Paso confused the closing of another wonderful bookstore, the Book Gallery, with The Bookery.  School districts and teachers stopped ordering from The Bookery, with the assumption that The Bookery had closed.  Yes, the Book Gallery in El Paso closed (alas), but The Bookery in Socorro is still open, and alive.  We need to support it.

Where else can you find an owner who has read hundreds of the books she sells?  Who will sit with you on her porch under the rough-hewn vigas, offer you coffee, and talk about books, and the famous writers who have visited her store, and the scuttlebutt of the neighborhood?  Margaret is unstintingly honest, and will pointedly let you know when an author, or his or her work, is not up to snuff in her estimation.  Isn’t that what everyone wants, an honest opinion?  Don’t you want to be introduced to a new author, or pointed in a new literary direction, by a book lover who possesses an uncanny memory?  Let me tell you, you don’t get a Margaret Barber on Amazon, and you don’t get her at Barnes and Noble.  You get her only at The Bookery.

I hope if you are shopping for the holidays, or if you are savoring warm asaderos from Licon’s Dairy, or if you yearn for an afternoon of intelligent, irreverent conversation about books, that you will hit the brakes at The Bookery on Socorro Road.  We need independent bookstores, we need independent voices, we need people thinking and arguing passionately about what should be in your brain, and why.  What we don’t need is more homogenization, or mass-market brainwashing.

To open up your mind, go to The Bookery on El Paso’s historic Mission Trail, at 10167 Socorro Road.  Margaret’s phone number is 915-859-6132.  From I-10, you get off at Americas Avenue, follow Americas (Loop 375) until you get to Socorro Road, and then head east.  As soon as you pass the Socorro Mission, The Bookery is on the left side.  It is one of those places worth fighting for.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Provinciality of the United States

Literal Magazine: Latin American Voices continues to be a provocative voice in culture, literature, and politics.  One of the best things about publishing your work in a magazine such as Literal (“How Has the Loss of Juárez Changed Border Culture?”) is to read who else is in the issue.  What fascinated me were two interviews, with the Mexican author Carlos Fuentes and philosopher Martha Nussbaum.

Two quotes in particular resonated with me:

“What’s going on is that this country, the United States, has become very provincial. When I started out, my editors, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, were publishing Francois Mauriac, Alberto Moravia, and ten or fifteen foreign novelists. Now there’s no one. Those of us who have been established for a long time, like Gabriel García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, or myself, have kept on publishing, but almost out of condescendence. There is no interest in new writers, in the vast quantity and quality of writers we have in Hispanic America. This country has become very self- absorbed and preoccupied, and it still does not understand what is going on in the world.”  –Carlos Fuentes

“I still believe that a healthy democracy needs an education that focuses on (1) Socratic self-examination and critical thinking; (2) the capacity to think as a citizen of the whole world, not just some local region or group, in a way informed by adequate historical, economic, and religious knowledge; and (3) trained imaginative capacities, so that people can put themselves in the position of others whose ways of life are very different from their own.”  –Martha Nussbaum

For many reasons, what Fuentes and Nussbaum were saying hit home.  I have seen how little U. S. readers read in translation, or how rarely they seek out foreign writers in their own language, be it Spanish, Chinese or German, and so on.  American pundits and politicos have also narrowed their agendas and appeals, to forego fact-checking, to trumpet narrow-minded biases.  What is routinely ignored is a more expansive appeal to the public to appreciate working in someone else’s shoes, for example, particularly one who is dark-skinned and has an accent.

The United States suffers from a growing deficit of imagination.  Not just for humanism.  Not for embracing a Kumbaya moment of idealism.  But for the truth.  Even my thirteen-year-old knows that to better understand your position and your argument —he learned that in mock Supreme Court cases his class studied and debated— you need to ‘see’ the other side.  The critical thinking of Socrates is based on answering questions that unmoor you, and probing your opponent with similar questions, but all of this ‘education’ is based on souls being open to such give-and-take.  What happens when we as a society become more insular?  What happens when we stop reading to challenge ourselves?  When we don’t care enough to question our own thinking?

These questions mattered in a writing group in which I recently participated.  One story I submitted was set on the Mexican-American border, and although the story received many favorable, enthusiastic comments, two or three in the group pointedly had an issue with my use of Spanish phrases and sentences intermixed with my prose in English.  Didn’t I want to expand my readership? they asked.  Wasn’t I limiting myself as a writer by excluding people like them who didn’t understand Spanish?  (We were talking about four or five sentences in a story that was 28 pages long.)

I was blunt and unapologetic.  I told them New York readers were at the end of my line, in terms of the readers I was focusing on.  I wanted to be authentic to the setting, the Mexican-American border.  I asked them how many had read Vargas Llosa, or Paz, or García Márquez in Spanish?  How many of them had stepped outside their comfortable linguistic boxes, to seek truth in other worlds and other languages?  I mentioned how I had learned German to read Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Mann in the original.  Perhaps I was too harsh on my fellow writers.  But even among the educated in cosmopolitan Manhattan, our provincialism is growing.  But at what cost, and why?

What happens when a society stops caring about the hard work of imagination, self-criticism, and education?  Will this society even realize what it has lost?  This season, give a book in translation, or prose or poetry from a university press, to someone you care about.  Point them to other indie cultural favorites, in magazines or literary reviews.  Broaden their minds, and prompt their critical thinking.  Help our citizens earn their place in this democracy.