The outside of the bookstore on 20th and Folsom Streets. Photo by Andrea Valencia

For one split second on 20th Street, I imagined I was back in Mexico City, wandering Donceles Street where all kinds of people go in and out of the street’s used bookstores. There it was, Librería Donceles, the same vintage lettering characteristic of those Mexico City stores.

Except I was in the Mission at 20th near Folsom. It was a pop-up, –a lovely one that plays on the romanticism of Donceles Street.  It is an itinerant bookstore installation hosted by Kadist Art Foundation SF, an art foundation, and created by Mexican artist Pablo Helguera most famous for his Artoons.

Inside, every book at Librería Donceles has been carefully selected and has a particular story that will potentially end in your hands.   “It’s the little details that separate it from the typical used bookstore,” said Helena Keeffe, who was at the desk Thursday afternoon.

The project originated in New York, where more than two million people are Spanish speakers, but no stand-alone Spanish bookstores can be found, according to Helguera. That deficit gave him the idea for the installation, one where customers donate what they think the book is worth and the proceeds go to local charities that support the learning and knowledge of the Spanish language.

The original bookstore opened in September 2013 in a Chelsea art gallery in New York and hosts more than 30,000 books. The artist is taking book donations for this project and although no books are rejected, there is a chance that if you donate a book in English it will go to the section of rejected books.

The used Spanish bookstore recovers the romantic notion of bookstores disappearing, and preserves the idea of a bookstore, but it is also simply an accessible used Spanish bookstore.

The bookstore in San Francisco has also been in Phoenix and will go next to Red Hook, Brooklyn on November 4th.

When you walk in,  a wall of portraits catches your eye. These are Helguera’s circle of friends who, in exchange for one of his drawings, donated some of the 2,000 books that you can find at the San Francisco location.

Every book has an ex-libris, a stamp that tells you who the book belonged to. One of the largest sections is poetry, something that reflect the artist’s background. The name of the sections have also been carefully curated.

Those who enter are welcome to fill out a Bibliographic Profile in a multiple answer format designed by the artist.   This way, you are guided through the installation by answering questions such as ‘What does a book mean to you? and What is the first image that comes to mind when you think of Latin America? (My answer: streets lined up with orange tarp food stands and bootlegged movies)

After answering these questions, you are offered an envelope with the section that you should be looking for a book.

When I came in Thursday afternoon, I was directed to wander through the Biografía/Autobiografía section where I was more distracted by everything surrounding the books. The metallic shelves are the same kind of run-down flimsy shelves as the ones found in the used bookstores in Donceles Street.

The signs of other book sections are also distracting as they are not the usual generic signs found at bookstores –Marxismo Trasnochado (or run-down Marxism), Teoría Dudosa (or doubtful theory), Ficción de Valor Dudoso (or questionable fiction) Libros Rechazados (or rejected books) and New Age can be found among the common Novela, Música, Poesía, Arte, Cine and many more.

Some books are present at all times in this itinerant project and are marked by green stickers, meaning they are not allowed for trade, as I learned when a book spotted me with José Luis Cuevas’ drawings on the cover was clearly calling my name.

Instead I took a book that had belonged to Gissel Allier, as per the ex libris, and that promised to tell the life story of Antonio I. Villareal ‘A great Mexican’. The 180 page book I took was printed in Monterrey, Mexico in May 22nd, 1959 and it sure smells and feels old. The cover is made of a thin magazine style paper with an old school black, white and brown illustration.

Other books are put in old suitcases and trays for display. There’s also a guitar, an old looking puppet and an abacus by the children’s section, a black and white photograph of the artists’ big family next to the many books as are many other objects carefully selected by the artist.

The only requirement to take a book is that you donate what you think the book is worth. Or as Helguera said in a video: “If you pay a penny, the book is yours. If you pay a thousand dollars, the books is yours”.  Only one book per visit sounds like a good rule to follow despite which bookstore you’re in.

The proceeds from the books will go towards a local Spanish literacy program.

If you want to donate a book, simply take it to Librería Donceles on 20th and Folsom streets or send an email to The exhibit will be open to the public until November 1st, and opens Wednesday to Saturday from 2pm to 7pm.

Andrea Valencia

Andrea was born and raised in Mexico City, where she graduated as a translator/interpreter. She has been working with Mission Local since 2009 translating content for the Spanish page. Also lives in the...

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