Buying used, rare, and antiquarian books in Costa Rica’s capital city of San Jose can be quite a challenge, but not because of a dearth of bookstores. Rather, unlike many cities in various parts of the world packed that are packed with bookshops, San Jose streets don’t have numbers that allow visitors unfamiliar with the city’s directional methods to locate with ease their intended destinations. Instead, directions are developed almost entirely on landmarks. As such, rather than receiving a specific address for a bookstore, you’ll get directions based on distance to or from a nearby restaurant, church, or coffee shop. For example, if you’d like to find your way to the bookstore Librería Expo 10, these are the directions you’ll need to take with you: travel 225 meters to the east of the “Biblical Clinic.” Or, for instance, if you’re hoping to browse the book selection at Librería El Ahorro, you’ll need to go 200 meters to the south of the church “La Merced.” As you might imagine, it can take a little while to grow accustomed to such directions. But once you get acclimated, there are many rare and antiquarian bookstores to discover.
Bookstores Around Universidad de Costa Rica
When we visited San Jose last year, the first region of the city we sought out for book browsing was the area around Universidad de Costa Rica—the university area. Our favorite rare and antiquarian bookstore in this part of the city is La Librería Andante. How can you find the shop if it doesn’t have a specific address? It’s located 100 meters to the east of the University Bookstore in San Pedro de Montes de Oca. Or, if you don’t have a way of gauging that distance, it’s precisely diagonal to the University Theater. The walls of the bookstore are lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, and they’re filled with books from the early nineteenth century through to rare editions from the late twentieth century. The shop specializes in literature, literary theory, and philosophy. For the particularly rare editions, ask to see the section entitled “ediciones de lujo,” or “luxury editions” in English.
We should note that most rare and antiquarian bookstores in San Jose specialize in books printed in Spain. While the country does have a national press—Editorial Costa Rica—many works of literature, in particular, are Spanish publications that have been imported to Central America.
Walking Around the Centro Histórico
While the university area is popular for book browsing, a number of rare and antiquarian bookstores are clustered throughout the Centro Histórico, or the historic center, of San Jose. Are you interested in visiting the oldest bookstore in the country? This is where you’ll find it. The shop, Librería El Erial, has been open in San Jose since 1943 at a time when bookstores were scarce in Central America. Recognizing a need for “al enriquecimiento cultural y la education nacional,” or cultural enrichment and national education, Carlos María Valverde Vargas opened Librería El Erial. For those who can’t read Spanish, you might not catch onto the clever name of this bookstore. It’s a double entrendre that translates to “The Waste Land,” in reference to T.S. Eliot’s poem, while also alluding to the previous scarcity of bookstores in San Jose. This is, in our opinion, the most well-curated bookstore in San Jose, and would prove to be fierce competition with some of our favorite shops in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. It’s located on Avenida 6, between Calle 9 and Calle 11.
In addition to Librería El Erial, the Centro Histórico features two more fantastic bookstores. At Librería Libro Azul, you can shop for a wide variety of rare books, from works of poetry to art catalogues to historical documents. But books aren’t all this shop has to offer. Vintage objects—all for sale—are displayed along the walls and are perched on a few bookshelves throughout the store. Librería Libro Azul is located 300 meters to the south and 25 meters to the east of the Antiguo Cine Rex, or the Rex Theater. A short walk away, you’ll find Librería Expo 10. Here, books are stacked in multiple rows from floor to ceiling. A bookstore cat, Lacy, will gladly follow you around as you search through the offerings. We should mention that the books in both of these shops aren’t alphabetized—you should plan to spend at least a few hours at each!
Barrio Escalante and the Emergence of Independent Bookstores
Are you planning to spend more than one day in San Jose? We have some more recommendations for you. While you’re in the city, you may find yourself in the neighborhood known as Barrio Escalante. There are a number of bookshops and art galleries in the area, and we’d like to highlight a couple of them. First, Mora Books boasts having the largest inventory of books in all of Central America. It’s run by Darren Mora, a radio DJ and concert promoter in San Jose. The store is located 75 meters north of Parque Morazán.
Nearby, nestled into a remodeled house that also contains a coffee shop and an art gallery space, you’ll find Libros Duluoz. This shop represents some of the emerging independent bookstores in San Jose, but it also contains a number of rare poetry journals and catalogues. We were thrilled to find chapbooks from regions throughout Central America, including clandestine poetry catalogues from Nicaragua and El Salvador. The store, whose name references Jack Kerouac’s semi-autobiographic novel from 1968, is located between between Calle 3 and Calle 5 along Avenida 7.
We highly recommend spending a few book-buying days in San Jose if you find yourself in Costa Rica. And let us assure you that navigating the directions is all part of the experience. Enjoy yourself, and bring home something exciting and new for your collection.