By Bruce Callow
Special to The Tico Times
Scattered throughout the gritty, nondescript streets of Costa Rica’s capital are hidden treasures that not many people outside of local circles ever visit. They are San José’s used bookstores. Each of these stores has something unique to offer, and several have extensive English-language book collections where great bargains can be found.
After accidentally discovering one of these charming, down-to-earth bookstores last year, I made a New Year’s resolution to investigate whether more like it existed in downtown San José. I was not disappointed, finding a total of nine used bookstores in central San José.
This is the type of investigation one carries out on foot. In a car, you likely would not even realize you were passing in front of some of these inconspicuous centers of culture. To the untrained eye, some of them might appear more like a flea market or garage sale. But don’t let the exterior fool you; it’s what’s inside that counts, and where the treasures lie.
Recently, with a few tips from well-informed locals, I set out to find as many of these mysterious bookstores as I could. Conveniently, most of them are in the eastern sector of downtown, making walking from store to store quite easy, once you know where they are. The people who run the bookstores are as interesting as the stores themselves and have plenty of entertaining anecdotes to share with customers. Some of their personal knickknack collections decorating their stores are worth a visit alone. One of the stores is so hidden that customers must often ring the doorbell to be admitted. Two of the oldest are marked by charming medieval-style signs – not things you would normally notice in rushed commutes in and out of San José.
As I made my way around the various bookstores, the discoveries I made somehow reminded me of the magical world of Harry Potter, a world that exists parallel to our own, yet visible to only a privileged few. I was struck by how many times I had passed by some of these places in a car or bus without realizing they were there.
Here are some highlights of San José’s used bookstores:
Expo-10 – Features a backroom dedicated to used English-language books that owner Ronald Chinchilla will proudly show you. Don’t be fooled by the exterior of this place; the variety here is impressive, including an extensive collection of National Geographic magazines in English for ₡200 (40 cents) each. There is also an amazing collection of phonograph records that is like a museum in itself.
Location: From Clínica Bíblica Hospital, 225 m east, on Avenida 14, between Calles 5 and 7
Phone: 2221-8307, 8714-7792
Mora Books – A true cultural icon and Costa Rica’s premier used English-language bookstore since 1991. Owner Darren Mora is also a radio DJ, concert promoter and music connoisseur. You will know you are in his store by the USS Enterprise ship from Star Trek hanging from the ceiling. Mora Books also has a great collection of comics and DVDs.
Location: 75 m north of Parque Morazán, beside the Aurola Holiday Inn
1324 Books – Located just below La Cuesta hotel on one of San José’s funkiest streets, this recently opened bookstore specializes in English fiction. It also features an artistic expression and reading area. It is a perfect spot for art shows and book launches.
Location: Avenida 1, between Calles 11 and 15, beneath La Cuesta hotel
Libros Azul – Though its English-language book selection is not extensive, this is a charming and well-managed bookstore popular with the Costa Rican university crowd.
Location: 300 m south, 50 m east of the San José cathedral, on Avenida 10, between Calles 1 and 0
Libros Gandhi – Not many English books here, but worth a visit if you are in the neighborhood.
Location: 50 m east of the former Jara pharmacy
El Erial – One of San José’s classic used bookstores, opened in 1943, this one is not to be missed. Owner Manuel López will be pleased to show you his collection of framed photos documenting how the bookstore, and San José, have evolved since the 1940s. Some English-language titles can be found here.
Location: Avenida 6, between Calles 8 and 10
Libros Coto – Another of San José’s old-time bookstores, specializing in Spanish literature and educational books.
Location: Avenida 6, between Calles 8 and 10, next to El Erial
El Ahorro No.1 – If you are looking for Star Trek books (especially ones written by William Shatner), this is a good place to visit. The store also has some interesting historical stuff in English; I purchased Anastasio Somoza’s autobiography, written in 1980, in English here.
Location: 200 m south, 50 m east of La Merced Church
Libros Usados – You may have to ring the doorbell to get in, but visiting this place is a unique and worthwhile experience. Owner Carlos Díaz stocks many Costa Rican tourist guidebooks at good prices.
Location: One block east of El Ahorro No. 1
Phone: 2223-3806, 8630-3190