Where to Buy and Sell Latinx Rare Books and Ephemera in the Mission
I remember when my mother, a Mexican immigrant, could afford to live in the Mission district in 2008. At the time, I was a student in East Bay, and I was studying Chicano literature and history in Berkeley. . But on weekends, I would visit her on BART and she would take me to her favorite bars, restaurants, and stores across the region.
I remember buying my first copy of a collection of poems by Juan Felipe Herrera, Exiles of desire, at Adobe Books on the 24th, a decade before he became the Poet Laureate of the United States. I remember walking around Balmy Alley and meeting some of the artists who were involved in these historic murals. I remember the smoke, alcohol, and the smell of old leather inside Bissap Baobab – the Senegalese nightclub on Mission Street that closed in 2019 – before it even turned 21.
Although I have never lived at the Mission, I felt a certain connection to the neighborhood, the people and the history I learned from my mother and being a first generation Mexican American with a deep interest for local art, music, literature, history and community.
That’s why I felt blindly excited to learn that there is a second-hand bookstore at 2141 Mission Street near 17th Street that has been in existence since 1981 and that I had never been to. Although it was written, I had never even heard of it. Until now.
Bolerium Books is a large, hidden store, on the third floor of a commercial building which, from Covid, can only be visited by appointment.
According to their website, the Rare Shop specializes in “ephemeral books and materials related to the history of labor and other social movements, including black and Chicano equality struggles, the liberation movement. gay, feminism and Asian-American activism “.
Luckily my friend Kevin Madrigal, a local writer from South San Francisco, had a date and invited me over. After ringing an intercom and sending an attendant down to unlock the door and lead us up the stairs, I suddenly found myself inside the largest and most unlikely collection of used books and accessories that I have ever seen. I had never seen.
(Royal Chicano Air Force poster denouncing gang violence. Photo: Alexandre Akin)
While the store maintains a massive collection of some 68,316 volumes on various subjects – from atomic energy and nuclear reactors to Zapatistas – my friend and I were there specifically for the Latinx stockpile. As Mexican American writers with roots in the region, we felt like two piñatas in a candy story; we wanted to keep everything.
An original poster of the first “Flor y Canto En El Barrio” poetry festival, featuring iconic poet Francisco X. Alarcon and future professor of ethnic studies at San Francisco State University, Leticia Hernández-Linares ? Understood.
Royal Chicano Airforce political artwork from the 1970s that advocated the free election of farm workers across California with Prop 14, or called for an end to gang violence? There is that.
Rare Latinx comics, brochures, textbooks, journals and poetry collections from local and international voices that you won’t find anywhere else? They have that too.
(Brief History of Chicano Workers by Lorenzo Torrez, found in the back bins. Photo: Alan Chazaro)
“We are trying to have the voices less heard and not just a collection to sell to wealthy collectors,” says Alexander Akin, longtime employee and now co-owner of Bolerium.. Together with John Durham, the original co-founder and principal owner, they kept the store open for three decades.
The bookstore originally shared the space with Alfonso Vijil, owner of Libros Latinos. But in 2017, Vijil took all of his stock and moved to Southern California, where he still operates today. According to Akin, Vijil set the standard for having a rich collection of Latinx texts acquired by traveling all over the world, and Bolerium felt it was right to keep this tradition alive once he was gone.
“It has been one of our specialties for years. As part of our focus on immigrant communities around the world as well as non-majority people in the United States, ”Akin added.
I’ve never seen such an eccentric and politically explosive collection of Latinx art and literature like this – and I’ve been to the Library of Congress in Washington DC and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. But the most important part at Bolerium? Everything is for sale.
Certain documents are so scarce in fact that a handful of the most reputable universities in the country acquire their books from Bolerium, from the exact same stock as any customer.
“The Berkeley Ethnic Studies Library is one of our biggest clients. Yale University too. Indiana University is a serious customer for our posters, ”says Akin. “For things that are specific to San Francisco, the Library [SFPL] actually has an amazing reading room, and they get a lot from us. It’s great for the non-traditional history of San Francisco.
I spent an afternoon there, and despite having several warehouse-sized rooms throughout the building, I only wandered around the Latinx archives (although Akin says that ‘this is not technically an “archive” because it implies an intention to keep and keep everything together, which, he reminds me, is not Bolerium’s mission). Instead, Bolerium is determined to sell, buy or trade anything they have at their disposal to anyone interested, from the largest universities to the most local artists and collectors.
“We like to have people in the community who are interested,” says Akin. “We have a lot of people coming or buying online and they get involved by doing a cool project with materials they bought from us. “
(Local poet, Kevin Madrigal, and The chicano testing. Photo: Alan Chazaro)
Since 1981, the unorthodox Bookhaven has acquired over 4,813 officially listed Latinx material items available in their store. For comparison, I searched another reputable rare book store in the Bay Area, Bibliomania, and they passed around 500 items in the same category.
“There are so many bookstores that have the same things you can find anywhere,” Akin tells me. “Why I love Bolerium and why I came here – even though I could make more money sweeping the streets – is that we are preserving stories the importance of which may not have been recognized to them. era. But as the world has changed, some of these voices have become more visible. I love that I can, in any way, elevate these narratives and add to the diversity that people can expose themselves to. “
Bolerium is not the place where you should buy a generic history book. This is where you go if you’re looking for an original early 20th century text published by an unknown author that could have been stowed away in someone’s attic until they eventually found their way to Bolerium.
“The Viola Novelty Company, created by Pascual Viola, was one of the Spanish language publishers in San Antonio, printing not only books but also two satirical newspapers, El Vacilon and El FandangoAkin told me. “The novel, El Dominio de Satanas, by Manuel Mateos, features a doctor from the fictional city of San Nicolas de las Huertas who goes around the underworld. When we acquired it, there was no record of any library in the world holding a copy. It would have been considered cheap fiction at the time without serious merit, so it would have gone under the radar of most institutions in the 1920s. ”
But now times have changed and novels like this are appreciated as windows into the popular culture of the time. If traveling to the past to rethink our present sounds like something you would appreciate, then hop into Bolerium and get ready for the historic ride.
To visit, buy, exchange or sell rare books:
Bolerium Books is located at 2141 Mission Street, Suite 300, near the 16th Street BART station. Call (415) 863-6353 Where [email protected] to arrange a visit. Please note that some areas are no longer accessible to navigation, so you may be advised to prepare a list from the online store advertisements.
(A number of!Basta you! from 1970, published in the Mission. Photo: Alexandre Akin)