Venezuelan bookstores, publishers struggle under economic crisis

A sign displaying prices of used books in the current Strong bolivar currency as well as the new Sovereign bolivar currency is seen at a stall in Caracas

By Johnny Carvajal and Vivian Sequera

CARACAS (Reuters) - Publishers and book stores in Venezuela are trying to survive the country's long economic crisis and sky-high inflation by selling used texts and a handful of new books from Venezuelan writers, booksellers said.

A drastic reduction in the number of publishers, imprints and bookstores began more than decade ago, as the government put in place currency controls, rules about the distribution of school textbooks and import restrictions.

Though economic activity enjoyed a slight recovery in 2021 and 2022 as the government eased currency controls, leading many to use dollars instead of the hugely-devalued bolivar, the respite was brief, with inflation reaching 398% year-on-year in July.

A decade ago the country's bookseller and publisher guild had 110 members, said its president Julio Mazparrote. That number has dwindled to 25.

Many book shops in the capital Caracas now have limited offerings, mostly secondhand, and customer numbers are low.

"What little money people have goes to food," said Mazparrote, 54, who inherited a small textbook publisher from his father, which he runs out of two-story house in western Caracas. "The crux is there is no money."

Resurgent inflation is devouring the income of many Venezuelans, making basic staples like food and medicine prohibitively expensive even for those with access to dollars.

Textbook publishers like Mazparrote were among the first to suffer a major blow, when the education ministry in 2011 limited use of textbooks from private publishers in public schools, which had represented some 80% of their business. The government has not printed textbooks since 2018.

Of the 25 textbook publishers that existed 13 years ago, only eight remain, Mazparrote said.

The education and communications ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

The migration of some 7.3 million Venezuelans has helped alleviate the shortage of books, as those emigrating look to give away or sell texts.

"The exodus of people who have left the country... means books are on offer," said Romulo Castellanos, 50, who runs bookstore Gran Pulperia de Libros Venezolanos in the north of the capital. He sells used books for between $1 and $3.

The monthly minimum wage is equivalent to about $5.

Though sales have dwindled, "thank God we've been able to survive and surf the wave," said Castellanos.

Bibliophiles without funds have hope thanks to one man - Francisco Suarez, 60, who runs a small shop in central Caracas.

"If I need to give it away, that's no problem," said Suarez, who often leaves books in his local sports center and at plazas nearby and hands out texts by Miguel de Cervantes or poet Miguel Hernandez on the bus.

"If someone says they don't have the money, I'll give it to them," he said. "Books are magic."

(Reporting by Johnny Carvajal and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Bill Berkrot)