Continuing to Learn in Alarming Times

Selling ones books.

By Lien Estrada

HAVANA TIMES – I thought selling books would be easier – never realizing that in a country with severe economic problems and crises of every kind over extended periods of time, nothing turns out to be easy. Even so, while doing my work, I began to think about the comment from a friend who saw me go by: “How interesting! Selling books, in a moment like this one in this country.” Frankly, if I begin to reflect on it seriously, on many occasions I find it more stressful than interesting, although I wish it weren’t the challenge it is almost every day.

Clearly, it has its satisfactions. When you watch people’s delight at finding the information they’ve been seeking for a long time. Or when someone asks the price of a book they want, and it ends up being very affordable, given these turbulent times with most prices in the stratosphere. Then they ask you: “Do you realize what this book you’re selling is?” And they thank you a thousand times, with joy in their soul.

But there are also very lonely days when they’re not interested in the subjects you propose. And other days that are still more complex. Still, it can’t be denied that the work of being a bookseller also brings you curious moments that become part of your own personal life, like a close-up view of others’ experiences, and you end up having a little more respect for the lives of those who come and go, for example. Because that’s the essential dynamic here.

I remember going to the house of a customer. The house was half-empty. There was a large living room, a table with four chairs, and a kitchen which seemed to be at the back. It gave the impression that all those who were there had only one task: packing things up. Naturally, I greeted them upon arriving and the owner of the house – the same woman who had asked me to come to her address – led me to a corner of the living room.

There were some boxes piled one on top of the others, reaching nearly halfway up the wall. She said: “These are the books I wanted you to look through. Tell me which ones you want to keep, and we’ll figure out a price.”

They were very good editions: some children’s literature, some for adults, books on mathematics, navigation… And I began to do my work, while the rest of the people continued with theirs. Later, I found out from the client that her whole family was up North waiting for her. Now, her travel permit had arrived, and she was – I could well imagine – running around like mad.

When I showed her the books I wanted to take and mentioned some possible prices, she told me that her husband had read all that literature and would tell her about it at night, before going to sleep. He’s an avid reader, she told me. When I showed her the books on navigation that I also wanted to take with me, she answered: “No, not those,” and apologized for not having told me that before. It’s because her husband was a sailor, and he had left word for her to bring him all the books on navigation, because he’d concluded that he couldn’t live without them. We laughed.

The woman had worked for many years in the Holguin print shop, in the area of bookbinding. She told me about the Daily Planner books she used to make by hand. She showed me some of the projects she still kept – books she’d made for her daughter who had emigrated as well and was waiting for her there.

Among the books, I found some of those booklets they used to have for teenagers some years ago, scrapbooks where they’d glue clippings of song lyrics that came out in magazines, wrote their own poems or copied those of others that they found in publications. A custom that’s been lost. I asked her for them, and she answered with a warm, “Yes.”

We finished sealing our agreement. I decided to keep many of those books. Some of them I would sell with great affection. They were the product of an almost certain farewell. Because she might return for a visit, or maybe she’d never again came back, like so many others. Sometime later, I’ve gone by the same street, and have peered at that now-closed house.

If I think about it, the great majority of the people who have books to sell me are retired, or else have some connection to emigration. A grandmother suggests I come visit her for the latter reason and gives me her address. We’re nearly neighbors. When I get there, I find an enormous box, full to the top with children’s books. All in excellent shape.

She tells me they belonged to her granddaughter, who has left for Brazil with her parents, the woman’s daughter and son-in-law. During a phone call, the granddaughter asked her to please hold on to her books, but she responded with: “For what?” They were here, on this side, gathering dust and destined to be eaten by cockroaches. She told the girl: “It’s better to let them to continue their voyage and reach other children.” After that, the granddaughter agreed. I feel I must handle them with great care, because they’re the kinds of stories that so closely touch everything human: wishes, partings, letting go, sadnesses, goodbyes…

More than one mother has come to the place where I sell the books to ask me to come to their homes and look through some books they have. They don’t need them: they belonged to their children who studied here – social or cultural themes, because their children were lyric singers, ballerinas.. and now they’re in Tapachula, Mexico, waiting to cross over into the United States, or they’re already there and not planning to come back. New books on History, Music, Art, Spanish Literature. The ballerina even studied German, and her mother had the kindness to give me the CDs that go with the texts. I’m fascinated by German, and now I have another method of learning.

There are family friends as well, who’ve been kind enough to leave me a message to come by their houses, and they’ll give me a lot of their books. With joy, I go get them.

The most challenging times are when days go by without being able to sell a single book. On days like that, the only ones who come around are people wanting to sell their books. Without exaggerating, up to three people can come to sell their books, while no one comes to buy from me. Unfortunately, in those moments, you must tell them you’re not able to buy, because sales are too slow. Adding to the stress is the woman who appears early in the morning to ask you for money so she can eat breakfast. Or the disheveled young man who tells you he just got out of prison and is far from home and wants you to help him with his fare.

When those experiences repeat over many days, while you need to put together enough food to eat every day of the year, well, desperation begins to arise inside you. Still, I can’t completely disregard the observation from my friend that I began this piece with. There are reasons for thinking like that, as well.

It’s comforting to see that there are still people who preserve the habit of reading in a country that’s falling completely apart, as many of us who live in Cuba feel about it. In a land where the most basic things have become luxuries – for example the question of food, due to how difficult it is to obtain it – it’s heartening to see that for many people continuing to study, to teach themselves, is important.

You encounter the woman who’s seeking school textbooks for her daughters, because she’s worried that there aren’t any in their school. The grandfather who wants to give his grandchildren a specific book because, to him, it’s a treasure. Or the mother who comes by carrying her baby on her chest and joyfully buys Jose Marti’s “La edad del oro,” or Edmundo de Amicis’ “Corazon,” because they’re the first books she wants to read to her baby.

When an old man stops and looks, seeking some foreign language book because he’s a translator and loves reading, can’t stop reading. The Physics teacher who asks you if you have anything on that topic, and please if you get ahold of one, to remember him. The boy who looks very young, who astonishes you by buying two math books. Or someone passing you very quickly on a bicycle-taxi, who thanks you for having helped him get a Giovanni Boccacio book in his hands, yelling this out in a very loud voice, so you can hear him.

Hence, amid all that you make friends, lovers, develop all kinds of relationships that you’re thankful for with all your heart. And yes, you must agree with your friend – to a degree – that it’s interesting to be selling books in these times. Even though there are circumstances that make you doubt it at moments.

Anyway, I shouldn’t be complaining so much, but growing, holding on to the intention to continue learning, even in times like these and in a country like this. Just as many of my clientele teach me more than once. Because you should never stop learning, not even in the most alarming times.

Read more from the diary of Lien Estrada here.

Lien Estrada

I am a lover of animals. I am passionate about a good book, a good movie, or a good conversation. I can't help but regret that I don't enjoy studying exact sciences. I am glad to have read Krishnamurti from a very young age. My upbringing is Christian, but I am fascinated by all religions, especially those of the East. The sea is another world that I find captivating.

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