August 26, 2015
By Uriel J. Garcia
One of the nation's few Spanish-language bookstores hides in plain sight among art galleries, clothing stores and restaurants off the Santa Fe Plaza. Tourists and locals walking along West San Francisco Street can easily miss the second-floor shop where Jim Dunlap holds forth among wooden shelves filled with Latin American literature, history and art books, CDs and tapes of obscure regional folk music, and other items that reflect his interests.
The tall, thin 77-year-old with graying hair and mustache was born in Washington, D.C. But after dropping out of George Washington University, he spent a dozen years as a young American in Mexico City. There he became fluent in Spanish and got hooked on Latin American novels.
"I just wanted to read a book in Spanish," Dunlap explains when asked why he opened the Allá bookstore 35 years ago.
He has managed to keep the business afloat in an industry that has been disrupted by the Internet, especially by online book sales, as well as the rise of e-readers such as Amazon's Kindle. Although the number of Spanish speakers in the nation is expected to increase to 40 million in the next five years, Allá is one of the country's few surviving brick-and-mortar bookstores that specialize in Latin American literature, including a selection of books in Portuguese.
When Dunlap opened Allá, which is Spanish for "over there," in 1980, he had about 1,000 titles, books he had collected during his Latin American travels. Over the years, his store expanded inside the Laughlin Building. Its bookshelves now hold about 65,000 titles.
The store carries well-known Latin American writers such as Mexican author José Emilio Pacheco or Chilean author Roberto Bolaño. People also can buy novelties such as Lotería, a game similar to bingo that is played with a deck of cards and tablets depicting images such as el boracho, the drunk, or el catrin, the gentleman.
Music recordings by popular Spanish-language artists are displayed near the store's entrance. Also on the racks is lesser-known music such as pirekuas, indigenous folk music from the Mexican state of Michoacán.
One room inside the store features the photography of Mexico's Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who many consider one of Latin America's most important 20th-century photographers.
Dunlap's interest in Latin American literature piqued after he moved to Mexico City in 1963 and began studying anthropology at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia. During the 12 years he lived there, he also worked as a writer, including a stint with an English-language daily newspaper. He said he also got a job putting together record books for the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico.
Every summer from 1970 to 1975, he traveled to Northern California to work as a carpenter in the wineries of Napa Valley. In 1975, Dunlap moved to Santa Fe, where he admired New Mexico's Spanish and Mexican history.
When he finally opened Allá, he thought he was filling a niche for locals who wanted to read in Spanish. "I thought there was going to be a demand for it," he said.
However, he began to notice that while locals visited his store, not many would buy his books because they couldn't read in Spanish and weren't familiar with Latin American authors.
Some of his best customers turned out to be out-of-state professors who teach classes in Latin American literature and history. He also said some local nonprofit organizations buy children's books in bulk.
Dunlap said a lot of tourists accidentally discover his store, which has a display window at sidewalk level. Some ask for specific titles and are surprised to find them at the store, he said.
His inventory grew after the 1987 birth of the Guadalajara International Book Fair, a major gathering for Spanish-speaking readers.
Since then, he has traveled to the fair almost every November to buy books that he later sells at Allá. In recent years, organizers of the book fair have paid for his travel expenses and his hotel, Dunlap says, because he spends thousands of dollars on books.
"They know I'm a sucker and I'll spend my money," he said.
His wife, Barbara Sommer, 57, an Indiana native who also speaks Spanish, said her husband might say that he started the shop just because he wanted to read books in Spanish, but she thinks he opened the store for nostalgic reasons.
During his time in Mexico, she said, he would go to cultural clubs, where locals visit and learn about their country's history through art installations, books and movies. Such government-sponsored places are common in Latin America.
"I think he wanted to bring something back from when he lived in Mexico," she said.
In years past, the store offered Spanish lessons and movie screenings, and hosted book signings by Latin American and New Mexican authors.
Allá doesn't advertise, have a website or even a Facebook page. Dunlap says the store's reputation helps bring in business.
Sommer said she plans to create a website and a social-media profile for the store, though there doesn't seem to be any hurry. "It's not necessarily smart," Sommer said of the lack of an online presence. "It's not like it was a conscious decision."
She said she doesn't have the time right now because she is a full-time college professor. She teaches Latin American history at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. She started teaching there in 2001, a year after she got her doctorate in anthropology from The University of New Mexico.
One reason she took the teaching job, she said, is so they could afford health insurance. That's not to say she doesn't love teaching, she said.
Sommer spends the school year on the East Coast. She returns to Santa Fe during her breaks and helps her husband run the store. She will retire soon, she said, and dedicate more time to promoting the store.
Until then, Allá's publicity will remain mostly word of mouth.
Source: The Telegraph