On 26th Street—where the eye is attacked with displays of quinceañera dresses so incredibly pink that they melt your eyeballs—it is easy to miss the understated black awning announcing the presence of Librería Girón. Were it not for an intriguing (and misleading) subtitle that caught my eye—“Discoteca International”—I would have passed right by the Librería’s unassuming storefront.
Walking into the primarily Spanish-language bookstore, there are no books and no dance floor in sight (as “Discoteca International” might suggest). Birthday cards, festive guitars, and miniatures of the Virgin Mary take up the whole front half of the store. But tucked away against the back walls are crowded shelves housing the books that one expects.
The woman behind the counter, Patricia Girón, the daughter of the store’s founder, strikes up a conversation and tells me about her amusement surrounding one of her biggest sellers: the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey. “It’s been like crazy. I have nothing. Only the English ones in the store right now. Those books—oh my goodness.” She elaborates: “The stories of the ladies [picking up Fifty Shades] are like, ‘Oh, I’m reading the book and my husband’s like, what are you reading? I’m like…nothing.’ And all of a sudden, the wife gives the husband the book and then the husband comes and says, ‘Give me the other two books!’ ”
Girón continues, “Three people have told me the same thing, that they give it to the husband and the husband loves the book too. I’ve read them. They’re…okay. I don’t know how they’re going to make that movie. It’s a funny seller because people try to cover them up.”
As we continue our conversation, she proudly recounts the history of the store. The family-owned business, launched in 1957 by Girón’s Guatemalan parents, was originally based in Pilsen. Girón’s mother, a book-loving schoolteacher, convinced Girón’s father, an electrician, that they should open a bookstore.
“We had difficult times, but there were good times,” says Girón with an air of nostalgia. “We had, at one point, nine stores. But little by little, as you know, even Borders went down, so, for us it was very hard.” With seven children, including Patricia, the Girón family placed the weight of their entire livelihood on the success of the bookstore.
Now with only three stores, Girón says the family must sacrifice some of the integrity of the bookstore to stay afloat. “It’s more of a love of the art, love to help people, be a part of the community, but it’s not paying the rent. So now we have a lot of religious figures, a lot of guitars, it’s just not the same. As they say, it’s easy to write a book, it’s easy to make a book, but it’s not easy to sell a book.”
Though it may appear that Librería Girón’s sale of non-literary merchandise to support themselves is a signal of the death of literature and ultimately the end of the world, that is not the case. In a way, Librería Girón has achieved the dream of every young bookstore. It attracts not only those seeking the practical—dictionaries or school supplies—but also (and in larger quantities) those looking for counsel and escape.
Self-help manuals and new age literature take up a significant portion of the shelves. Titles (translated from the Spanish) include: 7 Steps to Turn Your Dreams into a Reality, 60 Ways to Raise Your Self-Esteem, How to Make Your Husband Happy, The Language of Goodbye, Amulets and Talismans, How to Read the Aura, and Gypsy Magic.
“People buy self-help books because a lot of people can’t get jobs. These companies are helping them, telling them that they can do it. Here I get so many stories I could be a psychiatrist. You could even write a book about the stories that I’ve heard. I tell people books are their best friends. You can read with them, they’ll give you consejo [advice], they won’t say anything to you, they won’t slap you.” Girón laughs.
However, self-help manuals are not the only ones doling out advice; novels, too, are sought for guidance. El alquimista (The Alchemist), a fantasy novel about finding one’s destiny, is one of the most-purchased books in the store. “I always have to have El alquimista because it’s for people that don’t know what they want in life,” Girón explains. “It’s about a young man that doesn’t want to get married and just have kids and that’s it. In the end, he goes all over the place looking for something that was really right next door to him.” In a perhaps more powerful way, novels give the most sage counsel by showing and not instructing.
Girón gracefully concludes, “I guess what we try to sell is faith. A lot of people have faith. And we’re trying to help them to hang on to the faith. God’s here, we’re here, and we’re going to work it out. We’re going to be fifty-eight years old at the end of the month. If the community helps us, we’ll keep on going.”
Librería Girón, 3547 W. 26th St. Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm. (773)521-5651. gironbooks.com