Welcome to a village with more booksellers than schoolchildren

Despite its rugged beauty, Urueña, like many villages in the Spanish countryside, has struggled in recent decades with an aging and declining population that has left it stagnating at around 100 full-time residents. There is no butcher or baker; both have retired in recent months. The local school has only nine students.

But for the past ten years, a prosperous business in Urueña: books. There are 11 stores that sell books, including nine dedicated bookstores.

“I was born in a village that didn’t have a bookstore and where people certainly cared much more about the agriculture of their land and their animals than about books,” said Francisco Rodríguez, the mayor of Urueña, 53 years. “This change is a bit strange, but it’s a source of pride for a small place to have become a cultural center, which certainly makes us so different and special compared to the other villages around us.”

The attempt to turn Urueña into a literary center dates back to 2007, when the provincial authorities invested around 3 million euros, or about $3.3 million, to help restore and transform buildings in the village into bookstores and build an exhibition and conference center. They offered a symbolic rent of 10 euros per month to people interested in running a bookstore.

The plan was to keep Urueña alive with book tourism, modeling it on other rural literary hubs across Europe, including Montmorillon in France and Hay-on-Wye in Britain. Hay has long hosted one of the continent’s most famous literary festivals.

Spain has one of Europe’s largest book publishing markets, fueling a network of around 3,000 independent bookstores – and double that if you include stationers and other places that sell books. But around 40% of bookstores have less than 90,000 euros in annual turnover, which amounts to operating “a subsistence trade”, according to Álvaro Manso, spokesperson for CEGAL, an association which represents independent bookstores in Spain.

“The trend is one in which size matters and more very small bookstores will disappear,” as they have done in other countries where book sectors have consolidated, Manso said. To help small businesses compete, Spain’s Ministry of Culture this month allocated €9 million in grants to the book sector to modernize and digitize.

The survival of this huge national network of bookstores in Spain, where readership levels are not particularly high, is “one of the great paradoxes of this country, but I think we live in a kind of book bubble”, said Victor López-Bachiller, owner of a bookstore in Urueña.

Because rent is low, López-Bachiller said, he can stay afloat financially by selling a range of second-hand books, ranging from Spanish-language classics, like “Pedro Páramo” — after which his store is named — to comic books like Tintin. His shop also features around 50 models of old typewriters said to have been used by writers such as Jack Kerouac, JRR Tolkien, Karen Blixen and Patricia Highsmith.

López-Bachiller, 47, is one of about 100 residents of the village, mostly retirees.

Shelves at a bookstore in Urueña, Spain, March 5, 2022. Spain has one of Europe’s largest book publishing markets. The New York Times

Tamara Crespo, a journalist, and her husband, Fidel Raso, a photographer, bought a house in Urueña in 2001, ahead of the effort to turn the area into a literary center. They also run a bookstore there now.

“I think being here is not just about wanting to have a free bookstore, but also about embracing a certain way of life and building a community,” said Crespo, whose store focuses on photojournalism.

One of his few complaints is that some other booksellers only open sporadically, mainly on weekends when they know there will be more visitors, even though the investment plan stipulates that their stores must open at least four days a week.

She also noted that the population of the village has continued to decline slightly over the past two decades, even as Urueña has transformed into a magnet for book lovers.

Rodríguez, the mayor, acknowledged that becoming a tourist destination did not guarantee that more full-time residents would move in and keep the village alive. The recent retirements of traders are further proof of this.

“It’s very unfortunate, but we just couldn’t find someone from the younger generation here who was ready to take over as the new butcher,” he said.

Morning bread and meat are now delivered from a nearby town.

Rural Spain’s unfavorable demographics – a phenomenon now known as ‘La España vacía’ or ’empty Spain’ – will present an ongoing survival challenge, the mayor predicted.

Nevertheless, the bookshop’s initiative paid off.

Urueña was selected for the grants because of its scenic location and quaint buildings – and because of its relatively easy-to-reach location. It’s off a highway in northwest Spain and just over two hours’ drive from Madrid and around 30 miles from the medieval town of Valladolid.

The Urueña tourist office recorded 19,000 visitors in 2021, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Officials say the actual number was much higher because many day trippers don’t stop at the office. The village also receives around 70,000 euros per year of public money to organize cultural events such as calligraphy lessons, theater performances and conferences.

Isaac García, who owns a bookshop in Urueña specializing in film publications, had previously lived with his partner, Inés Toharia, just outside Hay-on-Wye, Wales’ book haven. The couple jumped at the chance to have their own bookshop in the heart of Spain.

“We felt we could combine big business with a dream lifestyle in the countryside, but this time in our home country,” García said. “Hay, of course, has had a lot more time to mature and establish itself as a literary center, but I think we’re getting there in Urueña, bit by bit.”

They sometimes use the back wall of their store to screen movies, but their attempts to schedule outdoor movie nights in the village have proven tricky.

“It’s too windy here for movie night,” García explained.

Even before the arrival of bookstores, Urueña had cultural attractions.

Longtime resident Joaquín Díaz is a Spanish folk singer and ethnographer. Díaz, now 74, moved to Urueña from Valladolid in the 1980s and lives in an old building where he has amassed an extensive collection of traditional instruments, books and recordings. His house was turned into a museum by provincial authorities three decades ago.

“I’m realistic and I don’t believe in getting too nostalgic,” Díaz said of the loss of traditional shops and crafts in villages like Urueña. “Overall, life is much easier now in the Spanish countryside than 50 years ago, and no one could ever imagine that books could one day be sold and help save this village when I arrived here. .”

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