It was the year of grace 1557, when pious María de Cepero y Nieto was hit by a stray bullet in front of the altar of the Parish Mayor of Havana. The unfortunate shot had escaped from the mouth of a handgun carried by a soldier who was doing military exercises in the adjacent square.
No wonder that esplanade was called Plaza de Armas (Square of Arms). There, on its northeast side, was erected the Castle of the Royal Force, which was the first Cuban fortification. Around the fortress the conquerors built shelters for the main representatives of the political and military power of the Spanish crown on the island: the Palace of the Captains General and the Palacio del Segundo Cabo.
Over the centuries, however, the square was losing its reputation as bellicose. By 1827 they built the beautiful “El Templete”, next to the thick ceiba tree that tradition has as the foundational site of the Villa de San Cristóbal de La Habana. Next (where today you find the Santa Isabel Hotel) the wealthy Count of Santovenia offered receptions in his palace for the Creole aristocracy.
Since 1935 the center of the square is occupied by a monument in honor of the man who freed his slaves and led the independence uprising of 1868. But besides being a warrior, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes was a man of letters: Doctor in Law, he wrote poetry and translated fragments of The Aeneid.
The Natural History Museum, an art gallery and the Ruben Martinez Villena Library, currently occupy a building on the side. And the Cuban Book Institute was housed in the former Palacio del Segundo Cabo until recently, when the building came under restoration and the governing body of the book in Cuba moved to Obispo Street.
But, indeed, books did not disappear from the Plaza de Armas: wooden shelves filled with used volumes cover the four sides of the rectangle. Those are the stands of the second-hand booksellers. And I turn to them for reporting on this useful occupation.
I have the good fortune to have known Damian from a long time. He will be my "Chinese Connection," as old journalists say, the key to enter the universe of the famous "booksellers of the Plaza de Armas"
A former poet, Damian, 46, knows everything of that activity, even its origins: "It started informally in late 1993. And in 1994 this profession was legalized, recognized by Eusebio Leal and the Office of the Historian of the City. "
Was love of books what gave you the initial boost? "Some of us got into this with that motivation. But during the special period, selling used books to tourists became for many different people a source of living. Imagine that once I heard a customer talking to a seller seeking Licario’s piano ". (The work in question is none other than Oppiano Licario, Jose Lezama Lima’s novel).
From a glance at the shelves you begin to see a picturesque eclecticism. The old Ernest Hemingway, marlin fisherman and lion hunter, the ruddy Nobel Literature Prize Laurate, in the same shelf of the complete works of frowning and thoughtful Vladimir Ilich Lenin, mastermind of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Below you can find the Diary in Bolivia by the stoic guerrilla Che Guevara, close to Jardin (Garden) by ethereal Dulce Maria Loynaz and sensuous Paradiso by Lezama.
It’s the so-called "low season" for tourism and there is no considerable movement of foreigners. Some vendors have set up their tables of chess to kill the time. Others meet to discuss the vicissitudes of the last classic Barcelona-Real Madrid.
-The economic crisis in Spain has affected us much, explains Damian. Here many Spanish booksellers used to come, people who know about books, our best customers … because most of the tourists always look for the same, things about politics, about the Cuban revolution. "
Anyway, those who perform this task do not give up and every day of the week they take office since at the end of the month they have to pay 1200 pesos (some 60 USD) tax for the permission to sell in the "special area" of the Historic Center of Old Havana.
"Is not that a lot?" I asked him. The answer: "We make a profit … Although there are those who find it too high. On top of that you have to pay another 60 pesos for the license and the share that goes for Social Security. "
At present, the positions are not usually taken by the real booksellers. Instead, the figure of the "seller" has emerged, whose official recognition came only after the widening of the range of private work activities. Damian introduces me to one of them.
"My license says ‘Assistant’, I monthly pay 6 pesos for it along with the amount of Social Security,says Javier. In return, I get 10% of the profits from the sale. "
Javier just turned 36 years and has been in this world since 1995. "I graduated with a BA in History, but in those difficult years, I decided to get to work with an uncle, Emilio, which was involved in this … I tell you more, bringing here what I learnt in the university has helped my sales here"
From his everyday experience, Javier has formed views on why sales have declined in recent times. "I think there is a global phenomenon and people today do not buy as many books … But in the case of us, it affects quite the declining of Spanish tourism because most of the books are available in Spanish. Among our prospective buyers now there are many who are Anglophone or speak German, Russian, Chinese, and we have no books in those languages. "
While I take pictures from different angles of Javier standing by his shelve, and of the square and park, lined with books, I think about the curious fate of this square, from a military place to one of culture. And I make vows for the booksellers of the Square of Arms last, because their function beyond its commercial importance, is to be a bridge of history and culture.