Bookstores in Bogotá & Reading Culture in Gabo’s Terrain

As the home to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, it should come as no surprise that Colombia takes pride in its literary production. While you may not see as many people on the Transmilenio reading books during their commutes as on the NYC Subway, the country has been making more of an effort in recent years to boost reading. Sometimes this takes the form of celebrating the strong literary tradition, like the 2017 events to memorialize 50 years since One Hundred Years of Solitude was first published or the 3 year anniversary of Gabo’s death on April 17, 2017, but there are also many initiatives designed to usher in a new generation of Colombian writers and readers.

50 anniversary of 100 years of solitude.JPG
At the Hay Festival Cartagena, The Fundación Gabriel Garcia Marquez para el Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano hosted a reading of selections from Cien años de soledad (January 28, 2017).

Perhaps the biggest literary event in the country, the Feria Internacional del Libro de Bogotá (FilBO) will take over the city starting tomorrow! Every April, the two-week event draws hundreds of thousands to book launches, special events with authors and editors, and cultural activities targeting readers outside of the industry, all to promote a culture of reading and intellectual exchange. There are areas dedicated to books of many genres, including the more conventional literature and popular novels as well as children’s books, graphic novels and comic books, and books of illustration and design. In addition to the many events, the major publishing houses and bookstores also set up shop at the massive Corferias venue, so if there is any book in Spanish, English, or another language, that you have been looking for, keep an eye out for special promotions at the vendor stands at the festival.

Last year, I attended several days of FilBo, first motivated to attend when I saw an event featuring the editor and publisher of Elena Ferrante. I then returned to check out other author talks and book launches and take advantage of the heavy discounts on books to collect reading material I hadn’t seen elsewhere in Bogotá.

Editor of Elena Ferrante at FilBo 2016
Elena Ferrante’s editor speaking with a former editor of Revista Arcadia at FilBo last year (April 24, 2016).

If you’re too lazy to trek to Corferias to find an inspiring read at FilBo (though I strongly suggest you force yourself to go!), or if you just want to get a sense of the best places to buy books in Bogotá, this is my run-down of bookstores in Bogotá, big and small, listed in no particular order then after the list, I have the bookstores organized into “best for…” categories. Finally, at the very bottom, I put together a GoogleMaps bit to show the bookstores I mention (with only several locations of Libreria Nacional and Panamericana included, since they have many locations).


The List: Best Bookstores in Bogotá

Fondo de Cultura Economica (FCE) at the Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Fitting for a center dedicated to the Nobel Prize Winner, the bookstore inside the center located two blocks from the Plaza Bolivar is nothing short of majestic. The FCE is a Mexican editorial institution, so there is some emphasis on Mexican authors and subjects, but the spacious, ring-shaped store holds a massive selection of all sorts of books and select periodicals. There are plenty of displays if you are looking to browse, and the English selection is strong. If you are particular about the editions or publishing houses that you buy from, FCE is your best bet to most likely have several editions of a book for you to choose from. If you’re local, subscribe to La Gaceta, the center’s weekly newsletter for info about author events, movie screenings, exhibits, and dance classes at the facilities. In early 2016, I attended a fantastic talk by the co-screenwriter of El Abrazo de la Serpiente, and I’ve noticed impressive programming over the last few months.

Favorite finds: Soccer in Sun and Shadows by Eduardo Galeano, El libro de los abrazos de Eduardo Galeano, Periodico Arteria (free bimonthly publication on current exhibits at museums and galleries)

IMG_2706
View from Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez that houses the Fondo de Cultura Economica.

Tornamesa

When I first researched Bogotá, I was excited to learn of a classic spot called Author’s Bookstore and disheartened when I arrived and learned that the old-store front in the heart of the Zona G had been shut down mere months before I arrived. Not to worry–several months later, a second location of Tornamesa (the first location is in CC Avenida Chile) opened in the old Author’s Bookstore spot. I have only visited this location in the Zona G, and I love it! The selection of Colombian literature is smaller than in other bookstores like the FCE, but I have usually found what I am looking for, and the staff is very attentive–almost too much so. I often enter for quick visits while passing by and to flip through a book or two and plan my next book purchase, and every time I am immediately approached by staff members asking to assist me. This shop, as the name suggests, also sells records and record players, if that is of interest. And there is a small cafe in the back–it used to be run by Amor Perfecto, but I think it is Diletto now. The bookstore also hosts events, but most I’ve seen are classical music concerts, and they didn’t seem super appealing to me. Worthwhile to like the page on Facebook in case an event of interest comes up.

Favorite finds: Pecado de Laura Restrepo, y Colombia, el riesgo es que te quieras quedar de Elkin Calderón.

Libreria Lerner

Lerner was one of the first bookstores I visited in Bogotá. I first visited the location in downtown on Av. Jimenez just south of Parque de los Periodistas and was impressed by the size. For the neighborhoods downtown, Lerner is by far the largest bookstore for new books. The new location that opened several months ago a block away from Parque 93 is also spacious, and I particularly enjoy how the Parque 93 location has a nice cafe area with Amor Perfecto coffee and pastelería. The cafe is outdoors with large umbrellas and plenty of seating, perfect for reading for a few hours if you are in the area and the weather is nice. The location near Parque 93 also has a solid lineup of author events. I saw Hector Abad Faciolince for a chat in the fall, and it was well run and intimate–I was able to speak with Abad after the event, ask a few burning questions, and have him inscribe both my own book and one for a friend. This bookstore seems to have the perfect blend of a nice, not-too-commercial vibe combined with an expansive collection (and even an online inventory you can check before coming into the store if you’re looking for something in particular).

Favorite find: La voragine de Jose Eustasio Rivera.

Hector Abad event at Lerner
At the Parque 93 location, Hector Abad (right) in conversation with Alberto Manguel, two of the judges of the Premio Hispanoamericana de Cuento Gabriel Garcia Marquez (October 31, 2016).

Libreria Merlin

As you will quickly discover, Bogotá is a city formed by districts, and the book district (located across from the Gold Museum, between Septima and Carrera Decima and Calle 17 to Calle 15) lives up to its name. This area in the heart of downtown is teeming with used bookstores and vendors–some with storefronts and stands and others set up on the street–peddling their wares of used and new books (both originals and copies). As a regular in the district, I have my favorite street vendors who can always track down appealing editions at unbeatable prices, but sadly I never asked their names.

On days when I want to browse or am hunting for an unusual treasure, I always visit Libreria Merlin, a mansion-turned-book-lovers-paradise. I have spent hours exploring the four-floors of the store and have discovered all sorts of gems. If you only read in English there is a small section on the first floor where you can find an assortment of mainly classics but also the occasional bestseller left behind by a backpacker–last time I visited, I counted 8 copies of Brave New World. Despite the sprawling nature of the store, the owner keeps an inventory and everyone who works there has an intimate knowledge of the sections to find a specific title, and they also are happy to suggest titles and authors if you tell them a bit about yourself or what you are looking to read. A few blocks away, is Torre de Babel, another well-known used bookstore, but I prefer Merlin.

Favorite finds: Relato de un naufrago de Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Palabras sueltas de Hector Abad Faciolince, y El amor, las mujeres, y la vida de Mario Benedetti. 

libreria-merlin
The sprawling Liberia Merlin in the “book district” downtown.

Wilborada 1047

In a Tudor style house in Quinta Camacho, tucked between plazoletas de comidas and notarias, you will find Wilborada 1047. The collection is similar to Tornamesa, a little bit of everything, including a strong English section. Unlike some of the other bookstores, Wilborada has a section designated for those who like to linger: several couches in the art book section and a small Cafe Cultor if you want a delicious cup of coffee while you delve into your new read. This bookstore also hosts regular book clubs, many readings for younger readers, and occasionally hosts big authors for talks, so like them on Facebook to stay in the loop. One fun, quirky fact is that the bookstore name references the street address but their opening times also play off the number, opening at 10:47am and closing at 7:47pm.

Favorite find: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.

Wilborada 1047
Books galore on the second level of Wilborada 1047.

Bookworm

If you are specifically looking for English books, Bookworm is your best bet. Currently located in an inviting café named Domestica in Chapinero Alto (try the flourless chocolate raspberry cake and the chai cookies), this bookstore has an offering nearly equivalent to that of a small, independent bookstore in the U.S., but expect to pay a hefty price. The editions are nice, though, so if you are looking for a gift or hunting for a specific book in English, Bookworm will likely come through for you. Since The Book Hotel closed several months ago and the second-location of Madriguera del Conejo left with it, Bookworm, though it primarily targets foreigners, is the main bookstore serving the heart of Chapinero Alto.

Favorite find: Echoes of the Struggle by Janelle Grey.

ArteLetra

Located right on Septima (with Calle 69), for months I passed by this bookstore multiple times a day, lingering by the entrance to scan the titles in the display but never entering. When I finally went in, I had seen several art books on the display that I wanted to flip through, so I rang the bell and was buzzed in, and I immediately left the bustle of Septima and entered a sanctuary of books. Shelves line the small store and every surface seems to be covered with a tall stack of books, making browsing feel almost dangerous. The eclectic collection is curated by the owner, with large sections for art books and various non-fiction subjects. I couldn’t fully understand the organization system for novels, and the few English books they sell seem to be mixed in with the Spanish. The owner is extremely knowledge about literature, poetry, and non-fiction subjects, so if you come in at a time when the store isn’t busy, she will gladly suggest books for your interests, and the personality of Arte Letra will come through in the range of specialty subjects their books cover.

Favorite find: Manifestos Vanguardistas de Latinoamerica de Edición Barataria.

Taschen

From its reputation as a major publishing house of art books, you probably guessed that Taschen stores are the top choice for art books. There are three Taschen stores in Bogotá, two larger ones near Parque 93 and Andino and a smaller one beside Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango across from Museo Botero downtown. But I actually first visited Taschen at FilBo because I was seduced by their promotions. I had just moved into a new apartment and wanted to cover the bare white walls with colorful art posters, and the Taschen stand at FilBo had big discounts on art book posters. Several months later after receiving compliments on the art posters, I visited the Taschen stores near Andino and Parque 93 looking for more, and I was pleased to discover that the art posters were still discounted! The regular prices are high, so be on the lookout for promotions, or just take a peek for inspiration on your way into Crepes and Waffles (at the Andino location). In GoogleMaps, several locations are called Libreria Art Books.

Favorite finds: Sets of 10 art posters of Paul Klee, Marc Chagall, and Pablo Picasso (I really wanted the Wassily Kandinsky set, but they were sold out). 

La Madriguera del Conejo

Located right across from the Taschen near Andino, La Madriguera del Conejo is a classic, homey independent bookstore in Bogotá. The space is very small, but that makes it perfect for intimate gatherings, and they frequently host authors, so you’ll surely be able to ask all your questions and have a book inscribed if you attend a book presentation at Madriguera. I have actually only visited this principal location once, but when I first arrived to Bogotá, I frequented The Book Hotel (which served as a hotel, restaurant, and second-location of Madriguera before it closed several months ago) and loved the displays and selection in this venue. The principal location has a special type of charm, though, with book shelves that slide to reveal more shelves behind and that accommodate many more books than you might expect at first sight of the small space. The only spot to linger is out front where there are several tables with umbrellas, so don’t even try to visit on a rainy day if you won’t be able to contain your excitement and will want to start your new book on site.

Favorite find: Cleopatra’s Nose by Judith Thurman (purchased around Valentine’s Day as a blind book date from The Book Hotel location 🙂 )

Luvina

Directly across from the Torres del Parque, Luvina “la esquina cultural de Bogotá” (“the cultural corner of Bogotá”) is a classic of La Macarena. The bohemian vibes of the neighborhood are perfectly reflected in this cozy bookstore and the friendly, relaxed staff. Though it may be small, it has plenty of character and lots of light, located on a corner with big floor-to-ceiling windows, making browsing and lingering pleasurable. The delicious aromaticas and wine bar make lingering extra pleasurable. One experience that I think sums up the vibe of Luvina is when I dropped in right around opening time several months ago to purchase the latest edition of El Malpensante, and the staff offered me a free glass of wine with my magazine. The store has somewhat irregular hours (open 1-9pm except Sundays), but I still highly recommend a visit. The store also hosts plenty of book clubs, workshops, and film series, so for best results, time your visit to coincide with an event relevant to your interests.

Favorite find: El Malpensante (literary magazine, basically The New Yorker of Colombia).

La Casa Tomada

As the main bookstore in Palermo, this spot is the beloved neighborhood bookstore for many residents of Parkway and Teusaquillo more generally. In my first several months in Bogotá, I took several classes at Zona Cinco and Academia de Artes Guerrero (both in Parkway/Palermo) so I had this bookstore on my to-visit list for a while. The collection of books is pretty expansive, but it is really the workshops, film series, and other events that set this place apart and give it character that is fitting for the hipster, laid-back neighborhood. Once my classes in the neighborhood ended, I never found myself longing to come back, I suppose because other spots were more inviting for my bookstore tastes and closer to the public transit routes I use. From my experiences there, I would mainly recommend La Casa Tomada if you are already in the area, or if there as an event or workshop that looks appealing.

Libreria Nacional

As the national, commercial bookseller, Libreria Nacional is essentially the Barnes & Noble of Colombia but with a smaller selection and a more industrial vibe. I have mainly found myself browsing in Libreria Nacional when in a mall (there are locations in nearly all of the Centros Comerciales) while waiting for something and having forgotten my current read at home. The prices are often a bit higher than what you will see at the other bookstores–even Lerner and FCE are often 1-4k COP cheaper than Libreria Nacional for whatever reason. But since Libreria Nacional is a chain with locations in six major cities in Colombia, when traveling and in desperate need of a read, I have found it to be a reliable bookstore. For a time after reading the fascinating history of Libreria Nacional and the vision of its founder, I wanted to give the bookstore more of a chance, but the locations in malls are often over crowded with teens begging their moms to buy them mandala coloring books, and I generally only went as a reliable place to find the newest edition of the literary magazine El Malpensante.

Favorite find: El Malpensante.

Panamericana 

The only one on this list that is not primarily a bookstore, Panamericana is focused on stationary and craft and office supplies rather than books, and the selection seems to be centered on bestsellers with a large variety of coloring books. Besides the occasional promotional pries, I see little reason to go to Panamericana if you are looking for a book. However, during FilBo, Panamericana tends to have fantastic discounts, especially later on in the festival, and the selection of books in Spanish and English is much greater during the festival.

Favorite find (at FilBo stand in 2016): In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri.


“Best Of…” Bogotá Bookstores

Best independent bookstores / neighborhood favorites:

  • Luvina (La Macarena)
  • Tornamesa (Zona G/Rosales/Chapinero Alto)
  • ArteLetra (Zona G/Rosales/Chapinero Alto)
  • Wilborada 1047 (Quinta Camacho)
  • La Casa Tomada (Palermo/Parkway/Teusaquillo)
  • La Madriguera del Conejo (Andino/Zona T/Chicó)

Best for browsing for inspiration / nice displays / to get lost in an eclectic collection:

  • Libreria Merlin
  • ArteLetra
  • Tornamesa
  • Wilborada 1047
  • Taschen
  • FCE

Best to linger / nice cafes onsite:

  • Libreria Lerner (Parque 93 at Amor Perfecto Cafe)
  • Wilborada 1047 (Cafe Cultor)
  • Tornamesa (Zona G at Cafe Diletto)
  • Bookworm (Domestica)
  • Luvina
  • FCE (Juan Valdez in the Centro Cultural Gabriel Garcia Marquez)

Best for literary, arts, and film events:

  • FCE
  • Libreria Lerner
  • La Madriguera del Conejo
  • Wilborada 1047
  • Luvina
  • La Casa Tomada

Best for book clubs:

  • Wilborada 1047
  • Luvina
  • La Casa Tomada

Best selection of books in English:

  • Bookworm
  • Tornamesa
  • Libreria Lerner
  • FCE
  • Libreria Merlin
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