Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Under the Volcano Books Opens October 15th, Mexico City

Grant Cogswell hanging shelves at Under the Volcano Books, July 2011.

The last time I saw Grant Cogswell, he was making me laugh hysterically in Austin, Texas. Seventeen years and a few cities later, this filmwriter/ activist/ longtime Seattle resident is gearing up to open an expat English-language bookstore and gathering place in the Roma District of Mexico City (D.F.). The store will be named Under the Volcano Books after the Mexico-set novel by expat writer Malcolm Lowry. The grand opening is set for Saturday October 15th, 2011.

Yesterday Grant was kind enough to answer some interview questions in between constructing a bookstore interior at Cerrada Chiapas 40-C, Colonia Roma Norte.

What led you to want to open a bookstore? Was this a life-long dream, or did it have more to do with timing and opportunity?


Not a lifelong dream. I'd worked in bookstores stateside, and it never really occurred to me until I came to D.F. and saw there wasn't really anything for readers of English - and began to imagine what was also missing, which was the kind of semi-public community that might grow around such an institution. After I decided to move here in 2006, my imagination of what kind of life I wanted here just kind of grew the store within itself, like a pearl, becoming the center of the impulse. By the time I was here full-time in late 2009 it was what I was doing.

I understand that you have a particular vision for this English-language bookstore in a world-class city, in a neighborhood with a long history of artists and expats. Knowing you, it will be much more than just a store. Tell us what you hope for the bookstore to be, and what steps you will take to see that vision through?

Well, I think it will be a place of a very particular kind. I'm very insistent that there won't be wi-fi available, even when we have coffee and tables and who knows maybe even some kind of food. There's a kind of psychic silence that to me is very much associated with reading - I think a lot of people go camping to find it, or hell, I don't know, have sex with strangers-- so that's the first thing: analog. I'll often be playing Coltrane, or The Band, or KEXP (ironically) online - there's also an amazing station here at 105.7 that has its finger on the pulse of whateveryouwanttocallit Indie rock from the US just as firmly as anything on the internet. Our location is at the end of an alley in a hundred-year-old working neighborhood, but we have this lovely little tiled back garden. I'd like it to be a place that a large assemblage of travellers and residents and even people in the English-speaking world who'll never go to Mexico recognize as an outpost of, I don't know, the examined life? That sounds so hard. The life of books, thought, self-education, art. Once my Spanish is good enough to read at a decent enough speed for literature (I can get through the newspaper fairly quick, but am constantly resorting to a dictionary) I just have to make sure I don't end up spending my off hours hanging out at El Pendulo or Conejo Blanco. I love those places. We could do a lot worse than just be an English version of them. There will at some point be a literary journal based in the store called Mexico Review focusing on translations from contemporary Mexican writers and Americans writing about Mexico, in the very most expansive sense. We'll be open every day, because a 24-hour-layover on a NY-Buenos Aires flight happens at its own convenience, and I am counting on those people coming to the store.

What kind of books will you feature?

Used contemporary and classic fiction and poetry, translations from the Spanish, politics, history, philosophy, urban planning and architecture, lit crit, interesting nonfiction, art books, punk culture, comics, travel books, language aids, 'expat lit'.

Matthew Stadler of Publication Studio recently read in the space that will be Under the Volcano Books. Do you plan to hold readings frequently? What types of writers will you court? From how far away?

I'll have visiting writers, obviously drawing for reasons of airfare and my personal connections far heavier from the West Coast of the US than the East. But a lot of people come through here. Not too often - I want to maintain the sense of them as an event, and the bar will be high, nobody without a published book at the very least. I can't see flying anyone over from Australia, but otherwise the sky's the limit.

What has been the most challenging aspect of opening the bookstore so far? What has been the most unexpected challenge?

Finding a space; finding a space. By custom here you need to have a property-owner guarantee your lease when you rent, and that goes for residential as well as commercial property. Arriving here as an immigrant without particularly deep local roots this was looking almost impossible - years off. Then my good friend and roommate bought a house in Roma Norte for his recording business and it was kind of the Hand of God.

You’re opening a brick and mortar bookstore in 2011. You’ve been blogging about the store, keeping far-flung friends updated on Facebook, and you’ve created a catalog of your store’s inventory on LibraryThing. How do you see the relationship between your bookstore and the digital world? Are you interested in selling books online, or just getting people into your space?

I'm going to do what I enjoy: I think going outside of that would be to the detriment of my pleasure in the store and thereby bring it down. There are people who want to see this become an emporium for the materials they use in their English classes here: that's not going to happen, nor am I going to become an online dealer. My skills are choosing the inventory very carefully based on a knowledge of the literature of the English language and contemporary culture, and curating a place for people to come to in a splendidly comfortable and affordable neighborhood. I will also make coffee.

One plan you had was to sell books on the street while waiting to find the right space for the store. Have you done much of that? How have sales been? Have you liked the feeling of selling literature on the streets of Mexico City?

I haven't sold anything on the streets. I soon found out those street markets are a web of old relationships and there's a reason you don't see foreigners working in them. I was about to get a permit from the Delegacion to sell in Coyoacan when Sylvain bought the house where the store will go and it just wasn't worth doing at that point.

I’ve been noticing a new business model among bookstores being opened by working artists and writers: The kind of bookstore that is not required to sustain itself. The owners’ income/s from art and writing jobs help to supplement the bookstore, which they choose to open because they passionately want a bookstore in their city. Will Under the Volcano Books be required to sustain itself?

Yes, but there are lots of ways we can make that happen if things get tight. I see the store over time becoming a magnet for people who want to practice their English. If there's a store full of people four nights a week at 50 pesos a head chatting away because that's what's needed to keep us afloat, that's perfectly fine with me. I think our overhead is a fraction of what it would be in the US. You see a lot of places here you wonder, how the hell does that store stay open? Things are just a lot cheaper in general here is how, and I am counting on them staying that way. I can't imagine the brass it would take to do this in the States, and don't want to.

On a Youtube video that seems to have vanished since I saw it, you made a very provocative statement that you hoped the bookstore would introduce both Mexicans and Americans the better sides of themselves to each other. That [currently] Mexicans know too much American scorn and Americans hear too much about Mexican crime. Tell us more about your hope and how literature sheds light on our better angels.

Well, most Americans simply have hardly the faintest idea about this country: what it contains, what its 'normal setting' is, the daily life of the majority of people. Now that the drug killings have reached around 50,000, people throw around the statistic that the narco wars have killed as many people as Americans died in Vietnam, so people think there is a war going on here. (There is in some places near the US border, specifically Ciudad Juarez, and in some of rural Tamaulipas where it could be classified at that level.) Well, that's true. But two million Vietnamese died in that war. Nothing like the same scale. Don't get me wrong, the situation is an enormous and terrible tragedy and I think most people here believe we have further to go with it than we have come yet, and who knows what it will lead to. But this is a nation of 100 million people most of whom have no connection with or direct experience of any of that world. And their lives go on, day to day. Americans sense not the least texture of that reality for the most part, or the nature of life here in DF, which is now one of the safest places in the country and a magnet again for that reason. Nor the particular and complex past and the nature of the national identity it produced, which I think may be a healthier approach to being of the New World than I have seen come to fruition in the U.S.

On the other side, American mass-culture floods the airwaves and the video stalls here, and it is usually the movies and music with the most money behind them, which are not always the worst, but very often. I've run into smart, worldly people here who were totally unaware the US has a culture of art cinema, for example. Mexicans in general are not big readers - which is okay for me, because Mexicans in general are not my target audience. But I'd like to at least get the very privileged cultural class here to be aware of Whitman, of Keats, or Cormac McCarthy and Virginia Woolf. I think there's room to create that awareness, and a hunger for it, because contact with American culture is seen from the very least on an economic plane as sophistication, as self-development. And I'm sitting here with the literary aspect being almost entirely absent from that conversation wanting to lean over and say "There's something pretty wide here you missed..."

Visit the Under the Volcano Books website here.

1 comment:

Marie said...

LOVE! Congratulations to Grant on opening his store; I hope I can visit someday!