Bookstores in Cuba

June 20, 2013 | Print Print |

Ken Hubert

The Fayad Jamis bookstore in Havana.

The Fayad Jamis bookstore in Havana.

HAVANA TIMES — Wherever I go, I like to browse in bookstores.  Through what appears on the shelves, and what doesn’t, I try to piece together what people are thinking or, at least, what they are thinking about.  So i was delighted when I found my first bookstore in Havana, on Obispo.

My partner and I spent some time there, unmolested by the hawkers, hustlers, and even outright beggars on the street.

In that bookstore there was lots of Jose Marti, less Castro and Guevara, and no Lenin.  They also had a good selection of children’s books.

Eventually, I did find some Lenin in a bookstore in Santa Clara, two copies of Lenin on Imperialism, the Highest Stage… and volume one of a biography of Lenin.  I found Lenin in at least one other store, as well as some Marx and Engels in Cienfuegos.

Overall I was in six stores, plus second hand stores and some open air markets.  I did not set foot on any university campus.  Perhaps the selection there is different.

I found Kafka, Mary Shelley, Doris Lessing, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele, all in Spanish.  I saw a book by or about Marietegui.  The bookstore in Trinidad had several copies of CLR James’ The Black Jacobins, also in Spanish.

Here are some writers I did not find.  Stalin, Mao, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, Bukharin, Plekhanov, Mandel, Chomsky.

On the Middle East there was practically nothing. Certainly nothing on the Arab Spring.

My partner did see a Spanish language collection of Mahmoud Darwish.  And I saw a book on the Islamic Revolution in Iran.  The second time i saw it, I opened it up and had a look.  It was not written in Cuba, but was a Spanish edition of a book originally published in Iran.

Not surprisingly, there was a picture of Khomeini on the front cover and the dedication page said, “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful.”


What's your opinion?

  • Ken Hiebert

    I received a comment on another list and i thought it was useful.

    What Ken Hiebert observed in the bookstores are the unsold books. Books are snapped up in Cuba, and the best sense of what is available out there is to go to the incredible Havana Bookfair in February (as the publishers push to get their books out in advance of that). Unlike capitalist publishers, they don’t keep automatically producing more copies of the books that are selling [especially since books are so subsidised]; rather, they use their limited budgets to produce other books. At least,that is true of Ciencas Sociales, one of the major Cuban publishers.

  • emagicmtman

    I managed to buy a treasure trove of books by Cuban novelists, poets, historians, enthnologists at bookstores on the “boulevar” in Sancti Spiritus, and also in bookstores in Habana and Santiago, including Jose Lezama Lima, Alejo Carpentier, Vergilio Penera, Fernando Ortiz, (Spanish edition to accompany my English edition of Contrapunto Cubano: Azucar y Tobaco), Dulce Maria Loynaz, Ruben Martinez Villena y Mirta Agueire Carreras, Chanito Isidron, etc. etc. Unfortunately, I then had to lug all these around in the rolling suitcase I had emptied after giving out the regalitos I brought from The North to my friends in Habana) from Varadero to Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Santiago, Baracoa and back! Now I know how Sisyphus felt!

  • Moses Patterson

    Ok, before it gets all gooey about books in Cuba, did Ken happen to find even one book critical of Fidel, Raul, or for that matter, anything having to do with the revolution? During and just after the US presidential election in 2008, a New York Times bestseller, ‘The Case Against Barack Obama: The Unlikely Rise and Unexamined Agenda of the Media’s Favorite Candidate’, by David Fredoso was all the rage in conservative circles. This is a book, like many others, is highly critical of my current President. Still, the republic did not crumble, life in the US continued and the sky did not fall. A book critical of the Castro regime would never be published in Cuba and if brought in from abroad, would be confiscated at the airport. Why do despots fear criticism so much?

  • Hubert Gieschen

    Opposite Moderna Poesia on Obispo is another bookshop whose name evades me. It was my first bookshop in Cuba. What a disappointment to find books by Jeffrey Archer. He is a Conservative member of the British House of Lords, once seen as a possible mayor of London but soon locked up in prison. He made his money writing run of the mill novels. Far more interesting are those bookshops that sell in moneda nacional. Interesting but sad. They are often empty and you feel sorry for the shop assistants. The books hardly ever cost more than twenty Cuban pesos. In Trinidad some shop assistants showed some business sense if that is what you want to call it selling me Padura’s Adios Hemingway for 150 Cuban pesos (the previous day someone demanded 400). I knew it was overpriced but bought it nonetheless. In Havana I bought a Wendy Guerra book. But mainly the shops sell cheap but interesting literary and cultural magazines from Cuba. Still, real Cubans have other things on their mind. Plaza de Armas is aimed a tourists and you get the real stuff, second books by Garcia Marquez or even Zoe Valdes. Still, bookshops in Cuba make me sad.

  • Griffin

    What a tragedy that Cuban bookstores don’t carry the works of great Cuban writers like Guillermo Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, Angel Santiesteban, Herberto Padila, Pedro Juan Gutierrez, or Jose Lezama Lima. There is a treasure of Cuban literature unknown on the island.

    At a bookstore in El Vedado I saw dozens of dusty neglected books by or about Fidel Castro. But nothing anybody would actually want to read.