The only librería in town
New York artist Pablo Helguera’s secondhand bookstore, Librería Donceles, seems particularly well-suited for Boston, a city known for its literary leanings. The traveling art project, comprising more than 10,000 volumes spanning numerous genres, opens Friday for an 11-week run at the art studio Urbano in Jamaica Plain and will provide visitors with a unique experience: Organizers say it will be the only bookstore in town devoted to used Spanish-language titles.
And that is Helguera’s point. Librería Donceles is intended to showcase the need for greater accessibility of reading materials for the nation’s large-and-growing Spanish-speaking community.
“Something that an artist can do is to create a space and idea of an object that are missing at the moment in society, and to bring them back to life even if they are not in their original space,” Helguera said. “In other words, I really wanted to create a used bookstore in Spanish — Spanish-language books — something that I don’t even recall ever seeing even in New York.”
Hispanics are the country’s largest ethnic/racial minority, according to a US Census Bureau report from October, making up nearly 18 percent of the population. And while figures for the number of Spanish-language bookstores in the nation are hard to come by industry officials agree that they don’t come anywhere near mirroring the size of the community.
At best, says Alicia Borinsky, a professor of Latin American and comparative literature at Boston University, bookstores may allot a few shelves to Spanish-language books or, at most, a portion of a specialty store such as Cambridge’s Schoenhof’s Foreign Books.
In fact, Helguera, a self-described lover of used bookstores, came upon the idea when it occurred to him that he had been unable to find a bookstore selling used Spanish-language titles in his adopted hometown of New York City.
He first pitched the bookstore-exhibition hybrid in 2013 to the Kent Fine Art gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It was, suffice it to say, an unconventional concept. “I was proposing to turn the gallery into a failed business . . . something that doesn’t make very much money,” Helguera said.
After the gallery gave Helguera the go-ahead, he returned to Mexico City and collected donations ranging from libraries’ history textbooks to a retired attorney’s law collection.
“I got a huge variety of books,” Helguera said. “We got textbooks, novels, philosophy, cookbooks, horror novels, theater. We have, like, 50 different categories, like any good bookstore.”
Since its initial run in New York, Librería Donceles has done some traveling of its own. The bookstore has visited six other cities — Miami, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and Indianapolis — and returned to its original city for three months in between. Boston will be its last stop.
Described by Helguera as an idiosyncratic mix of his mother’s living room and Mexico City’s historic bookstore-lined Calle Donceles, after which his project is named, Librería Donceles evokes a sense of nostalgia in many who pass through.
“What [Helguera] is doing really is fostering a culture that is simultaneously an acknowledgment of the communities built by travel, by immigration, and so on — those books that people put in their suitcases when they left their country. The feel is very different,” said BU’s Borinsky.
The project’s longevity has come as something of a surprise to Helguera. Originally designed as a one-time installation in New York, Librería Donceles took on its touring, “pay-what-you-wish” form for books when art organizations and venues nationwide reached out to Helguera. These groups help fund the program, and Helguera has collected additional book donations in cities on the tour.
“It became more of a spontaneous project. . . . Incredibly, we’re entering into the fourth year of the project, and I thought it was a project that was going to last only three months,” Helguera said. “The project, I think, touched a nerve in an important way.”
Part of its appeal involves its ever-changing collection, which tends to be eclectic, spanning centuries with authors representing a multitude of nationalities. Some recent titles were Sandra Cisneros’s “The House on Mango Street,” the coming-of-age story of a Latina girl in Chicago, and a Spanish translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist novel “Nausea.’’
“I do think this is a very good, important moment to make sure that all of our cultural production is at our fingertips,” Borinsky said, “that we are a community, those of us who are Hispanic, [that becomes] stronger because we are more culturally aware. Not in the form of narrow identity politics, but more connected everywhere.”
Librería Donceles can also serve as an educational bridge between the Hispanic community and others, according to its creators.
“Whenever you are questioning a culture — as we are in this moment when immigration is being criminalized — it is really important that there is a richness to every culture,” Helguera said. “Before you condemn an entire culture, you should really better understand it.”
Urbano, a nonprofit art studio in Jamaica Plain’s Egleston Square that encourages young people to participate in socially engaged and interdisciplinary work, will house Librería Donceles. Almost 90 percent of Urbano’s high school students are people of color, said founder Stella Aguirre McGregor, and a large percentage are Latino.
“You tend to look at the Latino community, especially now with all these conversations going on lately with the election, in a very narrow way,” Aguirre McGregor said. “By having a bookstore that has all sorts of topics . . . it is a way to address the vastness [of] the culture.”
At the time, Helguera was ready to put Librería Donceles to bed. But Aguirre McGregor’s enthusiasm convinced him to make one last trip to Boston.
“I respect what Urbano does,” Helguera said. “It’s nice to [finish] in Boston because it’s a city that’s so literary, where bookstores are so important. I like the idea that we’ll end there.”
At Urbano, 29 Germania St., Jamaica Plain, through March 31. 617-983-1007. urbanoproject.org