Claudia Bautista is the co-owner of Librería Hyperión in Xalapa, Veracruz and the founder of Mexico’s Red de Librerías Independientes (RELI, or Network of Independent Bookstores in English), which is perhaps the only indie booksellers union-of-sorts in Latin America.
Since founding the RELI in 2018, Bautista has organised with other indie booksellers across Mexico to address the issues facing their industry and secure better deals from editorials. More recently, with the support of El Sótano, the RELI launched an online store where buyers can purchase titles from indie bookstores across the country and have them delivered to their door.
Here, I talk with Claudia about the origins of the RELI, open manifestos, why indie bookstores are essential in Mexico, and the books she’s reading right now.
Lauren Cocking: Can you tell me a bit about when and how the Red de Librerías Independientes started?
Claudia Bautista: It started in October 2018 because we were going through a financial rough patch in Hyperión, as is always the way with bookstores. A client had come for a book and found it, then taken out their phone and seen that it was cheaper at a chain bookstore. This happens a lot, but that moment combined with the rough patch we were going through…well, it made me think.
So, I called a fellow bookseller from San Cristóbal de las Casas and I was like: “what do you think about joining forces?” We’ll get in touch with whoever we need to get in touch with, in order to sort out this ‘one price’ thing. Because until now, [that law] hasn’t been properly enforced.
[In 2008, Article 22 of the Law for the Promotion of Reading and the Book stated that all new books must be sold for the same price by all retailers across Mexico, without exception. In practice, this law isn’t monitored.]
Afterwards, it quickly became about more than the ‘one price’ thing. We started a WhatsApp chat – super old school! – and I spoke to all the fellow booksellers who I could find on Facebook. My goal was to get at least one bookstore per state, but I couldn’t find one for some states.
LC: Are you still missing some states even now, two years later?
CB: Yep. For example, we don’t have bookstores in Campeche, or Villahermosa, or Baja California.
LC: And in what way did what’s now the RELI start thinking beyond the ‘one price’ issue?
CB: The ‘one price’ thing is closely tied to transportation costs for bookstores outside of the capital. You couldn’t talk about pricing without touching on courier and delivery services, so we started to say: “right, let’s join forces and make a deal with a courier service so they don’t charge us as much.” We’re together in this, so we can negotiate as if we were one big bookstore. After that, we started to think – fantasise, really – about other things. For example, making consolidated purchases from publishers as if we were one big bookstore, not twenty small ones.
Then we realised that there were issues with our individual stores too, not just these external factors like pricing, chains, competition. For example, we didn’t have good administrative practices or software.
We also began to think about what we could do to attract readers’ attention to these bookstores that have always been overlooked or ignored, and we started to participate in the CANIEM (Cámara Nacional de la Industria Editorial Mexicana, or National Chamber of the Mexican Publishing Industry), who’d never before taken small bookstores into account.
[Editor’s note: the RELI also established the Independent Bookstores Day, which takes place on September 21st.]
LC: There are now 35 bookstores in the RELI and you’re in the process of admitting around 15 more. How did you convince booksellers to come onboard with the RELI at first?
CB: It was tricky because I didn’t even really know what to say to them. It was like: “hey, team up with me and we’re gunna look for…like, look for what?!” And then they’d tell me that they didn’t want to buy anything, they’d ask what I was selling or how much I was charging! That was really down to the fact that I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve.
Eventually, thanks to the WhatsApp chat, more people started to join – this was before we had a name, we weren’t even really a network! – and we talked about common problems and worries we all had.
[When I started calling people, asking them to join], loads said no. I think what moved them in the end was that I was talking about my own lived experiences as a bookseller, so they knew I wasn’t lying or making false promises. It resonated with them when I said that the only thing I wanted was to give us all a voice, that nobody would hear us alone. Nobody was going to listen to me, a bookseller from Xalapa, Veracruz, not alone! Not Penguin, not the government, not the CANIEM, not even the editorials.
LC: And have some of the people who refused at first now joined the RELI?
CB: Yeah. And now we don’t even have to look for them, it’s actually the other way around – they find us and call us [to ask for advice]! Almost always, they’re looking for community, trying to figure how to feel less isolated. Sometimes they run the only bookstore in the city. Because for such a big country, there are very few of us indie booksellers.
LC: How have the editorials reacted to the RELI and the goals surrounding the ‘one price’ issue, as well as your manifesto which calls for them to respect indie booksellers as important parts of the supply chain?
CB: Well, to begin with, we began to realise that we hadn’t established a relationship with what are really our closest allies, the editorials. We hadn’t chatted with them or considered that they have their own problems.
[With reference to the RELI], we’ve had all sorts of reactions from editorials. I think the majority have been positive because they’re pleased to see us joining forces; they know that coming together might mean more sales and that those sales will reflect in the editorials too. Some editorials have been open to changing their policies too, extending payment dates for bookstores that have been closed due to the pandemic. Some editorials, above all the independents, have showed solidarity and we’re even working well with big editorials, like Random House.
LC: Can you tell me more about your recently published manifesto?
CB: Yep! We gathered together our objectives and addressed, principally, the editorials, basically saying that we understand everyone’s going through a tough time right now but if we opt for short-term solutions – like discounts – there’s going to be a negative knock-on effect for everyone in the book industry.
We also addressed readers, saying that we need them; they’re the key to bookstores in neighbourhoods big or small. We need their support now more than ever.
LC: So, tell me a bit about the new RELI webpage. You now have an online store, which was launched in collaboration with El Sótano [a big book chain here in Mexico], is that right?
CB: That’s right — it was launched in June. We already worked with El Sótano and the online store was the idea of Edgár Hernández and Fernando Pascual. We decided it could be like a big community store, in which each customer can choose the bookstore they want to buy from at checkout, and El Sótano deals with the distribution.
LC: What have been the top-selling books on the platform so far?
CB: Children’s books! Another interesting thing, something that’s really stuck with me, is that many of the customers [buying online] aren’t existing customers. There are people buying from Hyperión that have maybe never even visited Xalapa!
For most of us booksellers – I think around 80% of the RELI bookstores don’t have an online store — this has been the only window into the world of online bookselling, and it’s offered us a real boost of energy [especially because] there are people choosing to buy with us out of solidarity. Because they understand the value of indie bookstores.
LC: Thinking about that a little bit more, what is the wider importance of supporting indie bookstores in Mexico? What do they offer that chains just don’t?
CB: There are so few indie bookstores in Mexico but, in some remote areas, they’re the only place where people can interact with culture. Maybe the municipal libraries are closed and there aren’t any cultural centres, or the activities at the cultural centres aren’t very interesting. All that’s left are the bookstores, and that’s important.
This is also the case even in medium-sized cities like Xalapa. We’re interested in more than just making money – because you don’t really make money with an indie bookstore anyway – we’re interested in contributing to our city and improving the neighbourhood. This goes beyond the cultural sphere at times; it’s not all book launches and literary talks.
For example, here in Hyperión, about two or three years ago there was a huge problem of women being kidnapped after leaving the bars or even just walking around. Everyone was scared, so we started an initiative called Corredor Seguro Murillo Vidal – Murillo Vidal is our street – which meant women who felt unsafe could seek refuge in the businesses on that avenue. We convinced our neighbours to take part, we made posters, launched a campaign, took emotional first aid courses and this initiative spread to other places around Veracruz.
People trust indie bookstores and that trust lets us launch these kinds of schemes that have nothing to do with books but improve the quality of life of our neighbours.
LC: Let’s talk briefly about Hyperión, which you co-own alongside your partner. How did you come to be a bookseller?
CB: No idea! (Laughs.) [It all started eleven years ago], when it wasn’t as easy to find books as it is now. People had to go to Puebla or Mexico City and so we decided that we’d bring books to Xalapa that you couldn’t even find in Mexico City. We were very naïve, very young, very innocent!
It was ages before we got our first customer and we were like: “no, this was a huge mistake.” But eventually we got a reputation for having these hard-to-find books, mostly social science titles.
LC: What are the books people come to Hyperión for the most nowadays?
CB: I think our strength is universal literature. [My partner] is a Rusophile, who loves Russian and Eastern European literature. We also sell lots of philosophy titles because Xalapa has a really good philosophy school and, recently, I’ve been working hard to improve our selection of children’s literature.
We’re serving people through bars at the minute, so people come and stand outside chatting for hours as if they were inside the bookshop. People have been super loyal to Hyperión. If they’d got frustrated at our wait times or prices compared with, say, Amazon, Hyperión would no longer exist.
LC: What do you like to read?
CB: What do I like to read? I really like fantasy! I think I’m stuck in my childhood (laughs) because I really like YA literature. Right now, I’m reading Restauración by Ave Barrera which is from an indie editorial [called Paraíso Perdido].
I like lighter books and I go through phases. Before having my son I used to read different genres, but right now the dramas of life are quite enough.
Related: Restauración Book Review (COMING SOON)
LC: Would you like to add anything else?
CB: I’m really pleased to see so many movements dedicated to independent bookstores around the world and to see that they’ve reached important goals. It gives me hope that, even though the RELI is still a small and fragile network right now, we can achieve big things.
I’m convinced that we need to rebuild the literary ecosystem in Mexico, because we have the potential to make a living out of [bookselling], but right now we’re not managing it. We need to question ourselves, but also the system and that scares me, because it’s huge!
This interview was translated from the original Spanish and edited for length and clarity.