Yesterday I went on an explorative evening walk, and I noticed that Bogota seems to have, without exaggerating, thousands of bookstores. I know Bogota is a city of eight million, but aside from the newspaper and magazines, it doesn’t really seem like the majority of people read all that much, unless they do so only in private. However, there is La Panamericana, La Libreria Nacional, Tower of Records, La Libreria de la Universidad Nacional, engineering bookstores, French bookstores, humanities bookstores, religious bookstores and used bookstores. In the center, there is even a street called La Calle del Libro and all that is sold there are books (most illegal copies) and related items such as agendas and calendars (You can obtain a special discount for all pre-2009 agendas and calendars). Then there are the street vendors selling the latest Dan Brown book and other popular books. I assume there has to be a market out there for so many sellers to exist, but except for my uncle, I haven’t really met that many voracious readers. Maybe Bogota’s book sellers are maintained by school kids and university students? It is a mystery I intend to solve.
Anyway, yesterday on my walk, I discovered shops that sell only hats, only purses, only women’s leather shoes, only Italian men’s shirts, only bread, only dairy, only pork, only beef, only chicken, only vegetables, only fruits, only alcohol, only pastries and on and on. I find it amazing that these small shops are able to survive because all of these items are sold in bigger department and chain stores or by street vendors (usually cheaper). Even in New York and Chicago, I don’t remember seeing this much “divisibility,” as the Full House theme song famously proclaims. Because of all its tiny shops, constant, interesting characters, narrow alleyways, dark, gloomy churches, cobblestoned streets, litter, pigeons, over-flowing trash cans, peopled plazas, street vendors, undiscovered corners, hodge-podge architecture and pine vegetation, the center of Bogota feels a bit like pre-industrialized Europe (minus the thousands of buses, taxis, skyscrapers and pollution). There are elegant, neoclassical bureaucratic buildings just a few blocks from mountain shanty-town invasions, grand avenues running parallel to embarrassingly unkempt, abandoned dead-end streets and important-looking men in expensive looking suits walking by ancient women with head shawls and long wool skirts selling candy and cigarettes from tiny, makeshift wooden stands. Not that I know much about how Europe felt and looked pre-industrial revolution, but the contrasts here and the “historical” feeling of the neighborhood gives me that impression. Or perhaps a Grimm’s fairy-tale. Not a Disney fairy-tale because there’s something a little bit dark, somber, far from innocent and less obviously happy, beautiful and perfect about el centro. I am really happy in my new neighborhood. It is the kind of place where you’ll always discover a new street, new shop, new corner, new plaza or new street vendor, and I’m less likely to get bored when there’s always something new to discover.
The center is also interesting to me because I’m seeing characters here that I had no idea existed in Colombia. Who would have known that Bogota actually has a middle-middle class, not just a desperately poor class and a crème de la crème upper-class? Because 99% of the people I’ve been around on my visits in Bogota live between la Calle 80 and la Calle 127, I’ve really only been exposed to one type of Colombian — one type of Bogotano: Well-mannered, upper-class, educated and cultured, but choosing to remain in their world in northern Bogota and generally terrified of anything with the word centro associated with it. In fact, they most likely only ventured to the center during their university studies or when foreigners come to visit. I can’t blame them. I wasn’t here when Colombia was the most violent country in the world and Bogota was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. But because I’m an outsider, I’m not burdened with the same sense of fear.