Three hours north of Mexico City (CDMX) is the city of Santiago de Querétaro. Here is where we spent the first couple weeks of 2023. I finished my first book of the year – Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier, one of my new favorites of all-time – and was left in need of a replacement. With our next stop being the capital and largest city, I figured there would be endless options of shops with English books in CDMX.
I woke up Tuesday with a rough plan of where to look. Starting just west of the Centro neighborhood, I was going to head to my first stop which was a short fifteen minute walk from our Airbnb then head down to the famous Roma neighborhood where you can find hipsters and cafés – two essential ingredients for a quirky bookshop haven.
I headed north past a nondescript neighborhood. There was the occasional tiendita, but for the most part I just passed a few people here and there going about their daily life. The walk was uneventful until I approached a series of murals that lined the southside of a building and stretched for an entire block. They were colorful and large. I took a moment to view and appreciate while locals passed by unimpressed. Do they not know what they have or do they take it for granted? Seriously, the houses in the town I live in are decorated with tacky holiday inflatables and “Trespassers will be shot” signs. People there wouldn’t know what to do with color and personality if it, one day, adorned their cookie-cutter vinyl siding.
As I crossed the street, I find the famous Biblioteca Vasconcelos. Described as a unique artistic collection of literature, the exterior is a concrete structure that reminded me of the brutalist J. Edgar Hoover building in Washington, D.C. I rounded the corner to the all-but-hidden entrance and followed a few young people inside.
Inside, it’s incredibly beautiful. The sections of books are enclosed between railings and see-through floors. Different sections are contained in block shapes and reach eight levels up. If you try to look the entire length of the building, I swear it curves beyond the horizon. A gorgeous building, yes, but not what I am after. I’m looking for an English-language book, a section this library doesn’t seem to have.
Using The Metro In Mexico City
My next stop is going to be the Roma neighborhood where I read there were plenty of bookshops. With it being a digital nomad and tourist hotspot, I figured my chances of finding an English-language book to be pretty high. I had two choices – make the hour-long trek south or try to tackle the city’s Metro system.
Yesterday, we went on a food tour of the city with a super friendly and informative host, who showed us the basics of riding the city’s metro system (you can read The Virgo Voyager’s recap here.) With a desire for quickness and confident in my abilities to figure it out, I opted for the underground subway.
- All subway rides are $5MXN no matter how many stops you’re traveling or how many times you change lines.
- You can either buy single-ride paper tickets or the public transportation metro card (more on this below.)
- There are 12 lines servicing 195 individual stations and 28 transfer stations where two or more lines intersect.
- The subway opens at 5am on weekdays, 6am on Saturdays, and 7am on Sundays and official holidays. It ends service at midnight everyday.
The Mexico City Metro Card
Officially known as the “Integrated Mobility Card,” this Metro card can be pre and re-filled and used on the 6 modes of public transportation found throughout the city, including the metro, metrobús, light rail, eco bikes, trolley, RTP buses, and the cablecar. This allows you to easily hop in and out of the public transportation system without waiting for a ticket each time.
They cost $15MXN and can be purchased at the Taquilla ticket booth (less exciting than its rhyming brethren) found in each subway station.
I approached and asked “puedo comprar una tarjeta del Metro?” The lady nodded and waited for me to continue. I guess I need to tell her how much to put on it. “con cuarenta,” I continued.
“55,” she asked as I gave her 100 pesos and she handed me back a newly activated card and change.
Cool, now I have my card. Time to figure out what to do with it. According to Google Maps, the closest stop to where I was going was called Sevilla which required two transfers based on the map.
Thankfully, the Mexico City Metro is laid out very similarly to the Metro found in Washington, D.C. where I’m from and much more experienced with. You find the line your station services and the two end points. Head that direction. Count the number of stops you need until your destination and get off when you reach it.
Buenavista one stop east to Guerrero. Switch to the olive line. Three stops south to Baldaras. Switch to the pink line. Three stops west to Sevilla. Boom.
When I left the station, I had a moment of shock. This neighborhood looked so much different than from where I came from. I can’t quite describe it. The street was more open and brighter. The energy was more positive. I crossed the road and headed down a street lined with an increasing amount of coffeeshops and boutiques. Before I do anything, though, I need some hand sanitizer.
On the Metro, since I was only taking a couple stops at a time, I stood near the door with my hands gripping the metal poles. With millions of people using the system, I wanted to do the hygienic thing and clean my hands. I entered the first Oxxo I found and asked the cashier if they had a small hand sanitizer, only I had no idea how to say this, so I pointed at the industrial-sized bottle behind the counter and asked “¿tienen esto pero pequeño?” 20 pesos.
I continued on passing recognizable brands such Starbucks and English-speaking tourists, an occurrence that hasn’t been frequent these past few weeks. Roma and its neighboring borough of Condesa are at the heart of a discussion surrounding digital nomadism and gentrification in Mexico. Let me know in the comments if you’d be interested in that discussion in a future post.
Bookstores in Roma
I won’t say I was looking for coffee, but there are tons of options in this neighborhood, and how does the saying go? When in Roma?
I skipped options like Starbucks and Tierra Garat and found Leito Cafe. It enticed me with its sign depicting it as Cuban. I skipped over the food menu which may have been Cuban, but the drink menu didn’t have much different than what I’ve seen everywhere else. I opted for a moka latte.
Before I went to my first bookstore in Roma, I strolled through Parque México to enjoy my much-too-hot drink. The park is lush with green trees providing all of the shade you could want on a hot day. Throughout, I found people walking with their significant others, people sitting in the shade on the benches of which there are plenty, and a few dog-training classes. I took a seat at one of the benches and sipped on my chocolate-flavored caffeine.
I wanted to check out a nearby bookstore around the corner. Under The Volcano Books is kind of hidden. Located inside the American Legion building, the bookstore is on the second floor in an unassuming corner. A young man sweeping out front led me up the stairs to it. As soon as I entered, a young lady asked me if I had been to the store before, I said no. She told me that all of the books are in English, they were organized by author’s last names, and the prices were on the inside of the front cover, and it was cash only.
I don’t go to bookstores with specific authors in mind. I can never find what I’m looking for and much prefer to have an idea of topic or genre, so of course my mind is completely absent of any particular author to look for.
Hmm… I’m in Mexico, let’s try Octavio Paz. I follow the books around until I find the ‘P’ section. Nope. Okay, what about the namesake book of the store by Malcom Lowry. They don’t have that either.
They did have a book by Ian Fleming about his life at the Goldeneye estate in Jamaica. The copy they had was a hefty hardback and a good bit too large to fit in my backpack for the next flight, but I’ll keep a look out for it when I get home.
One last attempt, I searched for Graham Greene. They actually had a solid collection including a copy of The Quiet American that I pulled out. Stained and falling apart, I couldn’t justify the price tag that rivaled that of a brand new copy.
Gracias, I thanked the young woman and left to find another store to try. To be clear, this is an excellent shop to try; however, I found that it is more suited for readers who know what they’re looking for or are well versed in literature, not novice readers like me who are just trying to do more of it.
In Roma, there are no shortage of places to try. I pulled up Google Maps and it seemed like there were at least one bookshop per block. I mapped out two more to try and made my way towards the closer one, Libreria Inter.
¿Tienen libros en ingles o solo en español? I asked the gentlemen right inside the store.
Only in Spanish before continuing on to a further explanation that I couldn’t keep up with.
Gracias, I continued on to the next store, La Increíble Librería. This time I pulled back up Google Maps, clicked the store, and went to the reviews section. A few of them said there is a small English-language section with translations of famous Mexican authors.
When I arrived, there were two groups of people crowding in with the sole purpose, it seemed, of expanding as much as possible and suffocate out all available breathing room. They had no desire to look at books as much as say hello to the employee. I circled around the tables in the middle, scanning random shelves as they became available until I got to the section of English-language books. A couple small architecture books and several copies of The Fault In Our Stars.
Am I too picky? Indecisive? Illiterate? D, all of the above?
I’m getting hungry and I know Rachel, who is working back at the Airbnb, is too. I return to our unread book-less abode defeated and strategize my next move.
Bookstores In Centro
I plan to return to the Roma neighborhood with Rachel a few days later. She is always a good resource if I need pressure to make a purchase.
Two days later, we go to explore the historic center which is a lot closer than we expected. After stopping by the well recommended El Cardenal for breakfast, we continued on past the Palacio de Bellas Artes, a gorgeous building and example of Mexican art and architecture. Across Avenida Juárez is Librerías Gandhi.
“I might come check this out later,” I told Rachel.
“Why don’t we just go now?” She responded, ushering me back towards the entrance.
Stepping inside, the bookshop stretched back and back. I looked at the easily read signs depicting the genres and topics that could be found on each shelf. We found a section with libros en ingles. Perfecto. At first, we only saw one shelf, but it stretched around to the other side and onto an adjacent shelf. I immediately started stockpiling a few choices that have either been on my list for a while or just ones that looked interesting. I flipped them over and saw great prices. Despite being brand new or collector-edition prints, these were better priced than the used versions I found in Roma.
We picked up copies of The Stranger by Albert Camus and The Little Prince and a collection of Kafka’s work. This should get me through Mexico City.
If you’re an avid reader or able to pick up a second language, CDMX provides plenty of options for bookshops and libraries. If you’re looking for an English-language book in Mexico City, I hope my story provides a little bit of help. Thanks for following along!