Under The Volcano: The Best Little Bookstore in Mexico City

By Carole Reedy

For extranjeros visiting and living in Mexico, it’s a challenge to find fine literature in English at a good price. Indeed, the shelves of the used bookstores on Calle Donceles in Centro Historico are laden with books in Spanish, with some in English but at inflated prices and in rather poor condition. New books in English are available in Gandhi bookstores and the American Bookstore, but can prove expensive for we who read several books a month.

But, lo and behold, snuggled on the second floor of the American Legion building at Celaya 25 in Colonia Hipómodro Condesa lies a little bit of heaven for book lovers. Owner Grant Cogswell has created a used bookstore that provides a broad variety of fine literature, history, biography, and poetry at reasonable prices, in excellent condition, and all in English. Be prepared to spend some time in the one-room space perusing the books and conversing with Grant, who knows every book in his store and can talk on a wide variety of topics, his favorite being literature.

Cogswell’s history is as compelling as his bookstore. A founder of the Seattle Monorail Project and the People’s Waterfront Coalition, he is also a film writer and producer. What brought this Californian to México with the goal of starting an enterprise we booklovers cherish? In 2005, while killing time before a dental appointment in Seattle, Cogswell was thumbing through a Moon Travel Guide about Mexico and thought, “When things go awry for me in Seattle, I will venture to Mexico.” Soon after, he found his way to our megalopolis.

As a young boy, Cogswell lived in Paris and Andalucia, which, he says “Profoundly marked my ideas about what cities and civilization should be like. When I was older and lived in the US and England, things just didn’t click for me. Mexico gives me that old feeling of comfort in the city.” Shades of Proust and his madeleines? “The city suits me entirely,” he goes on to say, “sometimes just walking in a park or during rush hour in the crowded Metro. Wherever you go here, the people are incredibly friendly.”

The logo for the store is, not surprisingly, an open book under a volcano. When asked about the origin for the bookstore’s name, Cogswell says with a smile and awaiting a challenge, “Named after the best novel in the English language, a piece of prose that works like a film. It is unique, and it talks about the Anglo/Mexican experience in a different way. In addition, the novel takes place in a city close to Mexico City: Cuernavaca.”

What books sell best? Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, tops the list. When a new copy comes in, it lasts about three hours on the shelf before it’s sold. The Great Gatsby seems to be the most studied American novel in the city. Hence its popularity at the bookshop.

Under the Volcano has a generous trade policy, depending on the popularity of the book. Credits run from 20 to 60 pesos towards future purchases, with largest credit given for books by T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Joan Didion (who Cogswell describes as the “best living prose writer”), and Sylvia Plath.

When asked the classic “Which three books would you take to a desert island?” the bookstore owner responds by saying the modern-day version of the question should be “What three books would you save in case of a nuclear disaster?” He couldn’t stop at three, naming five: a collection of T.S. Eliot’s poetry, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and White Teeth by Zadie Smith, each of which can be found on the tightly packed shelves at Under the Volcano.

There are many surprises here, including beautiful and pristine hard-cover editions of most of Anthony Trollope’s novels, Simon Winchester’s brilliant history books, and David Lida’s stories about Mexico, among other classics and modern gems. These days Cogswell is recommending Cormac McCarthy’s fifth novel, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, written in 1985 and considered his best by many critics. Also high on his list is George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, a brilliant exposition on the disastrous effects of television on American culture, originally written as essays for The New Yorker.

Don’t miss this bookshop filled with great books and conversation. Downstairs there’s a cute little bar that sells delicious hamburgers for just 60 pesos. Books and burgers, a perfect afternoon!

Check out the bookshop’s website: underthevolcanobooks.com

Open lots of hours: Mondays through Fridays: 10-7, Saturdays and Sundays: 10-6

Located at: Celaya 25 in Hipódromo Condesa, just three blocks from the Metrobus stop Sonora.

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