City Secrets Vol. 1: Desperate Literature Madrid

Building and maintaining your community is at the core of everything we do at Patreon. In our new series, City Secrets, we traverse the globe to meet creators who excel at doing just that: providing space, time, and resources to their local community and, with their support, build something new that transcends these local efforts. For each edition, we ask a fellow city creator to pay them a visit, and ask the questions only a kindred spirit would come up with. For Vol. 1 of City Secrets, Colombian art-pop maverick Julián Mayorga and Spanish visual artist/photographer Marta Orozco drop by Desperate Literature, Madrid’s number one destination for international prose and poetry, who recently celebrated their 8th anniversary. It’s a place where you can get everything, from well-worn secondhand bargains to Burroughs–signed first editions of Naked Lunch, and everything in-between. (Fun fact, Julián has a tattoo that references the same Roberto Bolaño book that inspired the name of the store.)

Here, Julián and Marta speak to the store owners Terry Craven and Charlotte Delattre about Madrid’s cultural scene, launching their own literary award, and how they’ve been using Patreon to keep the lights on during the pandemic and build a bright new future.

JULIÁN MAYORGA: To begin with, I thought we could talk about how the bookstore project began. How did you get here?

TERRY CRAVEN: We worked at Shakespeare and Company in Paris, so by 2014 I already knew I wanted to open a bookstore. At that time I was working with Craig Walzer, who is now our partner, and I was selling some antiquarian books. Charlotte said that I should give him a call and just kinda say it:  “Hey, I want to open a bookstore.” So I did, and Craig told me about having just bought this bookstore in Madrid and said: “Do you want to join us and see how it goes?” We came in April 2015, and here we are still.

CHARLOTTE DELATTRE: For the first two years we were living in a small room at the back of the store. We were grabbing wood in the street for shelving. We worked seven days a week and twelve hours a day. But it was incredible, it was exactly what I thought it would be: a bookstore utopia. Living without much distinction between private and public space, in a very fluid way .

The decision to come to Madrid was a bit by chance, right? 

CD: Completely. For example, Terry didn’t speak any Spanish. But now he speaks it really well, everyone keeps saying: “Where are you from, Zaragoza, Salamanca? He likes it a lot! 

TC: Nobody says that! (laughs)

CD: He’s from Yorkshire, he’s English! Unlike me – everyone leaves the store saying “Au revoir” because of my French accent. 

I think it’s beautiful to arrive in a city by chance. I was wondering if this project would be the same if it were a bookstore in England or in France.

TC: No. Simply because when we came we already knew what we wanted to do. On  the one hand, we wanted a mixture of languages ​​and, on the other, a mixture of new, second-hand, and rarer books. An interesting thing is that Spanish {from Spain} literature isn’t so well known in the UK. Of course, there’s a strong connection between English, German, and French literature, but because Spanish literature is less well known, commercially, we had a lot to learn when we arrived. And a super cool thing about Madrid is that it has its own thriving literary life, a lot of things happening.  

CD: The people here in Madrid, especially after the crisis of 2008, welcomed us with a lot of interest. While in Paris or London – at least from what I know in the field of literature – it’s a bit more of a “you’re the brother of…/ the nephew of…” type situation. Here, we had the opportunity to develop our project with a lot of support and interest from the people and from all the bookstores. It wasn’t a competitive environment. And then there are also the prices: in London and Paris this would’ve been impossible. Madrid is the only city we could arrive in with ten euros!

This bookstore is kind of a migrant enclave – the fact that different languages ​​coexist here makes it a must for people who come from other places. Just now at the entrance, there were people speaking in French and English…

CD: Exactly. I think it’s because Spain gives visas more readily to teachers, who come to teach English. That’s why there’s a strong community here that has helped us a lot. 

TC: Yes, we have to admit that our speciality is English literature. We have more books in English than in other languages ​​and we have more experience selling them. There are, I don’t know, about 300 bookstores selling books in Spanish here in Madrid. We have a mix of languages ​​but we have a range of books in English that can’t be found anywhere else in Madrid. So, yeah, it’s true that this is our speciality and that we attract more foreigners. But there are also many Spaniards who want to read in English and who come here because they know we have everything.

CD: Yes, a lot of people want to speak in other languages ​​and are looking to find exchanges and participate in events where they can experience a different kind of culture. 

TC: We also started our own literary prize. We made a good number of contacts in the literary world – poets, authors etc. – in London, in the United States, and in Paris as well. In 2019 we did a festival with well-known poets, mostly Americans. It was amazing. A lot of people came out to the store. It’s nice, because we’ve spent seven or eight years developing these relationships with people. 

Yes, with this Fiction Short Story Award you’ve clearly created a  map of connections with other bookstores and authors from other parts of the world – a literary map. Are these connections being created within Madrid as well?

CD: I definitely believe that we’re part of a community with the other independent bookstores in Madrid. We send customers to other stores and they send them to us, too. The work that independent bookstores do in Madrid creates a really good community.

TC: For example, we’ve held some events with the people of Nakama, a bookstore in the Chueca neighbourhood. They opened at the same time as us and we’ve grown together. 

CD: To see the editorial line of other bookstores, for example of Traficantes de Sueños or Tipos Infames in Malasaña, is very motivating! 

There are parts of the creative process that are unconscious – things often take on a life of their own and also defy the expectations one has of them. You said before that this bookstore was what you imagined. Could you tell me about the difficulties between expectations and reality? 

TC: We had previous experience working in a bookstore that grew a lot, and that gave us an idea of ​​what could be done. For example, we had an employee here, Rob, who one day said to me, “It would be cool if we did a literary award.” We talked about it a bit and I said “If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it big.” Let’s see what we can do to offer the most to advance a writer’s career: residencies, editorial sessions, money, publications, etc. So, we said, let’s go crazy. Let’s ask the biggest names in the publishing world at the moment if they want to be judges. And some of them said yes! Wow, what are we doing!?

It’s like it’s taking off on its own!  

TC: Absolutely. Last year, a thousand people signed up and, of course, we then needed more readers. You start with nothing and then it becomes a thing itself, with its own infrastructure that you have to implement, even though you didn’t know what you were doing at first. The same thing happened with the festival we did. We started by saying, “we’re going to invite ten poets” and it ended with fundraising thirty thousand euros, buying tickets, a series at the Residencia de Estudiantes, and a series of academic talks. It was crazy. Now maybe, (touch wood!), we’re going to open a publishing house.

CD: I think what Terry is talking about, all the craziness, is why it gives us so much pleasure to work here. For me it’s really like an extension of myself, where I can be the best version of myself. It gives me an opportunity to do better and I like going the extra mile every time. Like, we are open on Christmas day, something we inherited from our previous bookshop, that was some sort of a beacon of the store, you know?

TC: On Christmas, we open to folks who have nowhere to go that day. We make toast and then we close the shop and go eat somewhere together. Just doing something with the community. That’s where Patreon comes in: when the Covid crisis started, we were thinking about what we were going to do and someone told us about Patreon. They said that it’s a good way of mobilising people in our community. These people completely saved our lives during Covid. And now the idea is to see how we can develop this relationship and what good we can do with this help, and also what we can do in exchange. We’re growing little by little. 

CD: I think this way of growing is perfect for being on Patreon. But it’s not just about receiving something in return: we want to really strengthen our links with them and  create a community. I think that’s the way the bookstore has found success. There’s a trust and an identity to our bookstore that goes beyond just saving us from the pandemic.

Community is key to me. I think it has to do with how this globalised world has created the need for us to gather in smaller groups. And you’re not just creating channels for people to receive the spirit of the bookstore but also for the bookstore to receive the spirit of the people, right?

TC: We’re going to do a lot more with Patreon, because we try to give back and thank people. We’re at a point of change. Before, it was literally saving the bookstore from an economic crisis, but now it’s different because we’re open. And we have a lot of energy, too. 

CD: Yes, it’s an incredible energy. The ideas of travellers, of writers who are travelling around. For me, it’s like braiding. That gives me the energy to do new things, to find a new direction. When we met Daniela (Ruiz) in October, she gave us new energy, too.

TC:  Exchange is important. For instance, we want our book buying to be something of an exchange. We have very limited space, so we have to be pretty selective, but if a person tells us that they loved a book, we try to get it in. And when we had people living here, people always came with something: half of the illustrations we have on the walls are from people who slept here and that’s where a lot of the plants came from, our guitar, even. That’s how we want it. And it’s the same with Patreon: it provides us with new ways of relating to each other as a business, new ways of doing things. That’s the best aspect about this new wave of relationships.

CD: From the first moment we entered Patreon during the pandemic, we wanted to show our gratitude to all the people. The dynamics were incredible because everyone was confined and we could only see a few people. To have such loyal customers coming back to help us right away… There was somebody living in Virginia, he’s a student who subscribed for 30€ a month to help us,  you know? This scale of involvement is incredible. Sometimes it’s the people who remind you why you are doing this. 

One of your rewards is to offer tea to people in the store who are passing through Madrid. Even though relationships happen through this digital platform, there’s always an invitation to stop by in person too. The physical space and being face-to-face is key, right? I guess my question is: will there be bookstores in the future?

CD: (Laughs) Of course! The Amazon myth ended in 2005. I think people are still interested in buying a vacuum cleaner or a book on speaking techniques, or Game of Thrones and Twilight there. But things that have an identity, or a story, or a possibility of meeting someone? No. A lot of people come here telling us “I don’t want to buy from Jeff Bezos.” There’s no competition because we provide a completely different service; we offer a little life, friendship, and other things. 

TC: This is a small bookstore, so what we really need is to grow little by little. We need to always re-invest. It’s not a super capitalist vision in which we have to grow or fail. We have to pay what we have to pay and that’s it – that and thank the people who help us. After all, we are physical beings. We need to touch things, smell the pages, be around other people, hold events where we talk, chat, discuss, where we see and feel the physical quality of the books we’re after. As Charlotte already said, in 2005 people said that the e-book was going to kill the physical book but it didn’t kill it, and I think it’s because we need to play in our bodies, we need to have space and also a bit of time to read. A book in that sense is a time dilation machine. Politically, I think it’s really important to take the time to read – which is getting harder and harder, even for me as a bookseller.

CD: Yes, and right now, just selling books isn’t enough. We have to be active  on social networks etc. It’s a difficult game: remaining faithful, true to our values ​​and not losing our vision. The thing I’m afraid about the most with Amazon, social media and such is that we might be starting to question the idea of ​​what a cool, interesting bookshop might be, you know? 

This makes me think about the idea of ​​the essential – something that came up during the pandemic, especially at the beginning, when the Spanish state began to talk about essential businesses that implied a choice of the essential, only imposed from top to bottom. But then, throughout the confinement, what was truly necessary and essential emerged by itself: a place to go to read books and be in contact with other people surely is essential, too…

TC: Yeah, and also: get out of the algorithm! With Rafa, one of the co-owners of Nakama Librería, we went to deliver seventy thousand signatures to the Madrid City Council during the pandemic. We talked to the people there and we demanded that bookstores be considered essential services, but it seems that it was legally impossible. I think that a large part of what we do is because I want to bring the world here, working from my chair in the bookstore. If I want a person to do an event of my favourite books, I invite them . I have always thought that in a bookstore you can do whatever you want, if you want to see dance, then you invite dancers to the bookstore. 

CD: I think that’s Terry’s talent, this way of dreaming big. We can bring this utopia here and people are really interested in finding spaces like these.

Absolutely. I recently read a book by Kathy Weeks about imaginations beyond work. One thing that touched me a lot was this idea about how utopian thinking had gotten so lost in the last twenty years. And she said that we had to be able to think in utopian ways – that we cannot be satisfied with thinking that what exists now is the best we can do…

CD: Exactly! And it’s also a bit like fishing: there are times when I wait all day and nothing happens, but then an absolutely magical moment arrives… 

   

Julián Mayorga is a Colombian musician, performer, and writer based in Madrid, Spain. 

Marta Orozco Villarrubia is a photographer, artist, and educator from Madrid, Spain.