SOL invades the
A lavish public library where soldiers, and a rabbit, reign
Reformista Hector Marino, who in years past carried a six-figure acquisition budget to Guadalajara, arranged a tour of one of the world's exceptional public libraries: the Biblioteca Pública del Ejército y Fuerza Aérea Mexicanos. You read that right—it's a public library, but it's staffed by soldiers and flyboys. In uniform.
The library occupies a grand 19th-century structure replete with courts and gardens and second-story views of downtown Guadalajara. The main collection, pictured at left, surrounds a courtyard bathed generously in light from Jalisco's azure sky. We tourists lost count of the fountains on the grounds but were thrilled to meet the library's charming white flop-eared mascot, Panchita. The tame little rabbit hopped straight out of the pages of the library's copy of Alicia en el país de las maravillas, and into the hearts of the khaki-clad library staff. But they strictly keep her out of the reading room; rules are rules.
The library's wonders don't stop with Panchita. It offers astonishingly extensive services to the blind, with an array of equipment—audio text scanner, Braille printer—and team of volunteers that few of our US public libraries could hope to match. Many more pictures of this and other facets of a truly remarkable library are at Reforma's FIL photo gallery, the work of José Ruiz-Alvarez.
Another extraordinary library, this one better known to Guadalajara visitors thanks to its central downtown location, its imposing façade, and its grand wooden doors carved in bas-relief by David Alfaro Siqueiros, is the Biblioteca Iberoamericana, now named for Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz.. It's part of the University of Guadalajara library system, which offers its collection to the public for use in the building. Quite a building, too, with four centuries of history and Siqueiros's paint all over the ceiling. Immediately next door in the same historic structure is a Burger King, by the way, but we digress.
Even though rules, as noted above, are rules, the one about silence in this library is rendered irrelevant by the uproariously entertaining mime who regularly performs in the plaza fronting the entrance; peals of laughter rip through the library every minute or so when he's on a roll. To make matters worse, somebody put Missus Flaco up to flouting the prohibition against picturetaking to snap the shot of her bookwormish husband at right. Since the librarians here were not trained killers in uniform, the risk seemed negligible.
Even some of the city's bookstores boast a classical elegance that can prompt you to tuck in your shirt and comb your hair before you step inside. The hundred-year-old Librería Porrúa, at left, is one of those. Stained- glass signage in the portico directs patrons toward the books, a café, and, yes, an Internet salon.
Lest you get the idea that all of Mexico's bookstores and its 6,000-odd public libraries are as well-appointed as the places shown here, we'll politely direct you toward our account of a different kind of tour with a couple of the nation's library G-men. And it pleases us to report that in the same neighborhood as the grand Porrúa you can still find several gritty and unpretentious used bookstores, their cut-rate treasures and rarities stacked and shelved with varying degrees of randomness, or order, depending entirely on the traits of the owner.
Flaco is still reeling from his experience in the El Pilar bookstore. After scouring its shelves for a good long time, he turned to proprietress Eugenia Torres and asked, "You got anything by Mario Benedetti?" She reached for a paperback three inches from her nose and produced a copy of La muerte y otras sorpresas. "Here you go. It's the only one we have right now, too." This, friends, is what some people call 'excellent customer service,' but we prefer to think of it as pure magic.
If you go to Guadalajara, do yourself a favor and visit a library. Before you go you can even consult an annotated list of the city's prominent bibliotecas, with addresses and descriptions in English. Stop by a second-hand bookstore, too, if you have the time, especially if the venerable used bookshop is a business model that's fading fast in your hometown. Maybe Borders and B+N have built the 21st-century steel-reinforced toll bridge between the pristine pastures of the library and the murky swampland of commerce, but it's worth remembering the weathered, invitingly moss-laden covered bridges that once upon a time did the same, and put books in the hands of those with more curiosity than cash.
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