Welcome to a village with more booksellers than school pupils
By Raphael Minder
Standing on a hilltop in northwestern Spain, Urueña overlooks a vast and windswept landscape of sunflower and barley fields, as well as a famous winery. The walls of some shops are built directly into the 12th-century ramparts of the village.
Despite its rugged beauty, Urueña, like many villages in the Spanish countryside, has struggled over recent decades with an aging and dwindling population that has left it stagnant at about only 100 full-time residents. There is no butcher and no baker; both retired in the past few months. The local school has just nine students.
But for the past decade or so, one business has been thriving in Urueña: books. There are 11 stores that sell books, including nine dedicated bookshops.
“I was born in a village that didn’t have a bookstore and where people certainly cared a lot more about farming their land and their animals than about books,” said Francisco Rodríguez, the 53-year-old mayor of Urueña. “This change is a bit strange, but it’s a source of pride for a tiny place to have become a cultural center, which now also certainly makes us different and special compared to the other villages around us.”
The attempt to turn Urueña into a literary hub dates to 2007, when provincial authorities invested about 3 million euros, or about $3.3 million, to help restore and convert village buildings into bookstores and to construct an exhibition and conference center. They offered a symbolic rental fee of 10 euros per month to people interested in running a bookstore.
The plan was to keep Urueña alive with book tourism, modeling it after other rural literary hubs across Europe — notably, Montmorillon in France and Hay-on-Wye in Britain. Hay has long hosted one of the continent’s most famous literary festivals.
Spain has one of Europe’s biggest book-publishing markets, feeding a network of about 3,000 independent bookstores — and double that number if stationery shops and other places that sell books are counted. But about 40% of bookstores have less than 90,000 euros in annual revenue, which amounts to operating “a subsistence business,” according to Álvaro Manso, spokesperson for CEGAL, an association that represents Spain’s independent bookstores.
“The trend is one in which size matters and more of the very small bookstores will disappear” as they have in other countries where book sectors have consolidated, Manso said. To help smaller businesses compete, Spain’s culture ministry this month allocated 9 million euros in subsidies for the book sector to modernize and digitalize.
The survival of that huge nationwide network of bookstores in Spain, where readership levels are not particularly high, is “one of the great paradoxes of this country, but I think we’re living in a kind of book bubble,” said Victor López-Bachiller, who owns a bookstore in Urueña.
Because the rent is low, López-Bachiller said, he can stay afloat financially by selling an array of secondhand books, everything from Spanish-language classics, like “Pedro Páramo” — after which his store is named — to comics like Tintin. His shop also displays about 50 models of old typewriters said to have been used by writers such as Jack Kerouac, J.R.R. Tolkien, Karen Blixen and Patricia Highsmith.
López-Bachiller, 47, is among the some 100 residents of the village, most of them pensioners.
Tamara Crespo, a journalist, and her husband, Fidel Raso, a photographer, bought a house in Urueña in 2001, before the effort to turn the area into a literary hub. They also run a bookstore there now.
“I feel that being here is not just about wanting to have a rent-free bookstore but also embracing a certain way of life and building up a community,” said Crespo, whose store focuses on photojournalism.
One of her few complaints is that some other bookstore owners open up only sporadically, mainly on weekends when they know that there will be more visitors, even though the investment project stipulates that their shops should open at least four days a week.
She also noted that the village population had continued to fall slightly over the past two decades, even as Urueña turned into a magnet for book lovers.
Rodríguez, the mayor, acknowledged that becoming a tourism destination was no guarantee that more full-time residents would move in and keep the village alive. The recent retirements of the shopkeepers were more proof of that.
“It’s very unfortunate, but we simply couldn’t find anybody from the younger generation here willing to take over as our new butcher,” he said.
The morning’s bread and meat are now delivered from a neighboring town.
The unfavorable demographics of rural Spain — a phenomenon now known as “La España vacía,” or “empty Spain” — will present a continuing survival challenge, the mayor predicted.
Nonetheless, the bookstore initiative has borne fruit.
Urueña was selected for the subsidies because of its scenic location and picturesque buildings — and because of its relatively easy-to-reach location. It is off a highway in northwestern Spain and just over two hours’ drive from Madrid and about 30 miles from the medieval city of Valladolid.
The tourism office in Urueña registered 19,000 visitors in 2021, even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Officials say the actual number was far higher because many day trippers do not stop at the office. The village also gets about 70,000 euros a year in public money to organize cultural events such as calligraphy classes, theater performances and conferences.