Even though Denise and I traveled to Oaxaca City, Mexico to get away from hearing work phrases such as “core values,” “staying on message,” and the tyrannical “COB,” our book shopper selves never take a vacation. Located in the state of Oaxaca in the lower third of the nation, the city of Oaxaca is known for its cuisine, textiles, pottery, chocolate, mezcal, wood carvings --- and that is only the beginning. It is also the home of a fine English language bookstore called Amate Books.
Located on the pedestrian friendly Alcalá between the Zócalo (the central town square) and the gilded Cathedral of Santo Domingo (built between 1570-1608), Amate is a medium sized store filled with books on Mayan and Aztec history along with books about the Zapotecs, the predominant indigenous tribe in the area. It was the Zapotecs who built the ancient city of Monte Alban, dating from 500 B.C. to its peak at 700 AD, just outside of Oaxaca City and ruled the area before being conquered by the Aztecs and later the Spaniards. The store also features many books on art, photography, history, cooking and revolutionary politics including The Zapitista Reader (2002) edited by Tom Hayden. While we browsed, we looked at every title and pulled out dozens of books. As you would expect, there were many Latin America writers represented, such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, but one could also find a few British and American authors as well ranging from George Martin and Michael Chabon to Jane Austen. I was especially impressed when I saw a copy of famed Latin American translator's Gregory Rabassa's book, If This Be Treason: Translation ant Its Dyscontents, A Memoir (2005). Rabassa's interpretation of Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude is considered a masterpiece itself and contributed to the Nobel Prize winner's international success.
After long deliberations, Denise and I made our selections while reminding ourselves that we had weight restrictions (for our luggage) to consider. We selected these titles: Mexican Textiles (2003) by Masakio Takahashi and Toni Cohan, Mexico: A Traveler's Literary Companion (2006) edited by C.M. Mayo, Mexico in Mind: An Anthology (2006) edited by Maria Finn Dominguez, and A Perfect Red (2005) by Amy Butler Greenfield. The last book is a historical account of how red dye made from a parasite that lives on the prickly pear cactus became one of world's most precious commodities. The book came highly recommended from our B & B hostess, who was also an expert on local folk art. (Her home was practically an art museum.)
I already finished reading Mexico in Mind by the time I returned to the States. Unlike the Mayo book, which collected works from writers who were from Mexico, the Dominquez anthology featured some well known writers like Katherine Anne Porter, John Steinbeck and D.H. Lawrence --- who had either lived in Mexico or who traveled extensively there. One of the more obscure excerpts came from Charles Macomb Flandrau, who wrote about his experiences on his brother's Chiapas coffee plantation in the 1908 book, Viva Mexico!. Educated at Harvard, Flandrau wrote little after the publication of Viva Mexico!, but his self-deprecating style is humorous, and similar to Mark Twain's and has aged well. Check out this passage where he ruminates on how the coffee bean became so popular.
When I see the brown hands of the pickers fluttering like nimble birds among the branches, and think of the eight patient processes to which the little berries must be subjected before they can become a cup of drinkable coffee, I often wonder how and by whom their secret was wrestled from them. Was it an accident like the original whitening of sugar, when – so we used to be told-- a chicken with clay on its feet ran over a mound of crude, brown crystals? Or did a dejected Arabian, having heard all of life that (like the tomato of our grandmothers) it was a deadly thing, attempt by drinking it to assuage forever a hopeless passion from some bulbul of the desert, and then find himelf not dead, but waking? … But no one ever inadvertantly picked, dispulped, fermented, washed, dried, hulled, roasted ground, and boiled coffee, and unless most of these things are done to it, it is of no possible use.
Like many other Oaxacan retailers, Amate also has its Day of the Dead component. We knew that Dias de los Muertos was an important festival observed in early November in Mexico, but we learned its influence is actually seen year round as skullls adorn everything from jewelry to chocolate to T-shirts. It reminded us of the skit in the television program Portlandia where Fred Armisten and Carrie Brownstein pitch their services for “Put a Bird On It,” a store that specializes on products that display painted birds. The feeling is a little the same in Oaxaca, and Amate Books – judging by the full-sized wicker skeletons that greet you as you enter – except the catch-phrase would be “Put a Skull on It.”