Known for its pristine beaches, El Yunque rain forest, and beautiful Spanish colonial architecture, Puerto Rico is also an important book market for U.S. publishers. With a population of almost four million people, the island has a rich tradition of literature and poetry. Puerto Ricans, without a doubt, are enthusiastic readers and book buyers.
There used to be many independent bookstores in Puerto Rico, but when Borders opened in 2000, many of those stores disappeared, drastically altering the local bookselling market. At one point, Borders had three retail locations on the island: in the capital city of San Juan, in Mayagüez, and in Carolina.
The store in the Plaza Las Américas shopping center in San Juan became the highest-grossing outlet for the entire chain. It had annual sales of $17 million, according to numbers provided to El Nuevo Día newspaper by a former general manager on the island.
Local sales figures of books are hard to come by, though. In a Publishers Weekly article published in 2000, the market was estimated at $30 million (pre-Borders). Adding the $17 million generated by Borders, the Puerto Rican market reached almost $50 million. But many of those interviewed for this piece suspect today’s estimates are about half of what they used to be.
Since the closing of Borders in Puerto Rico in July 2011, a few independent bookstores have emerged, and big-box retailers have also expanded their offerings in order to meet the demand for books. PW spoke with key players of the island’s book industry about how booksellers and distributors are coping with the crisis, and how they hope to survive.
“Bearing in mind Puerto Rico’s political status and the fact that most of what is consumed in the island is imported, Puerto Ricans have the need to express their cultural identity,” says José Ignacio Valenzuela, a novelist, screenwriter, and former writing professor at Universidad del Sagrado Corazón in the San Juan sector of Santurce.
“Through art, music, and literature, Puerto Ricans celebrate their culture and reaffirm their powerful identity,” explains Valenzuela. “There are numerous literary activities taking place every day. Literary organizations, book festivals, and writers’ workshops abound—Puerto Ricans love books. All types of books.”
The arrival, and departure, of Borders had both positive and negative effects, those consulted here agree. A traditional culture of small, independent bookstores now had to deal with the presence of huge, modern retail spaces that made titles in both English and Spanish easily available, plus an enhanced reading experience with cafes. Those stores became social places for gathering, attracting new audiences in the process, while many smaller book retailers suffered and closed.
“The major structural changes that have influenced the book industry—the megabookstores, the introduction of Amazon, the rise of electronic books—took place during the last 10 years, which is when we opened our bookstore,” says Javier Ortiz, owner of Old San Juan’s La Tertulia. “We have been able to survive all that, plus the global economic crisis and the exit of major international publishing houses from Puerto Rico, by adapting.”
And by adapting, Ortiz means doing what must be done to remain competitive yet unique: “The personal touch, our relationship and time with our clients, have been key factors for us. This is something that the megabookstores could not offer. We now go more to the international book fairs, Guadalajara, Bogotá, etc., to purchase books and foster relations.”
For Ana Ivelisse Feliciano, business partner of publishing house Terranova Editores and former head of marketing for Borders Puerto Rico, “The changes in the book market in Puerto Rico can’t just be attributed to the closing of Borders. The market and the consumer also changed.”
The local book industry did not escape the same forces that have been transforming the world’s publishing landscape. “Just like in other markets, more consumers are buying through online retailers, and there is also the shift to e-books,” states Feliciano. “The recession, which deeply affected the island, has been an important factor as well.”
Many book distributors affected by the dismal economy and the closing of Borders have also gone out of business. A few managed to hang on, but they have scaled back significantly.
Paco Parés Vázquez, a Puerto Rican book distributor with over three decades of experience in the business, supplied books to Borders. When those bookstores closed, he lost 75% in sales, he says. Others colleagues lost around 50%.
“For good or for bad, Borders was the bookstore that lifted up the market of Puerto Rican authors on the island and made our business [Representaciones Borinqueñas] its main provider of this type of book during their last five years here,” explains Parés Vázquez. “Remember that Borders typically sold books in English because that’s what they knew best, but when they got here, they realized they had to increase their Spanish offerings. And they discovered that Puerto Rican books were sought by readers from all over the island.”
To continue supplying those readers, Parés Vázquez, like many of his colleagues, has had to think outside the box. He is, for example, making books available at paradores, which are similar to country inns, throughout the island.
Retailers and publishers, like those that specialize in religious books, such as Grupo Nelson and Charisma Media, have not given up either. They recognize that, in spite of the difficulties, the Puerto Rican market still has plenty of potential. For Casa Creación, part of Charisma Media, Puerto Rico is number one among all their Spanish-language markets. Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Walgreens, and other chain stores, meanwhile, have expanded their shelf space for books, and this has helped the Puerto Rican market.
When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, of Puerto Rican ancestry, went to the island in April to promote her book, Mi mundo adorado (My Beloved World), she visited several universities and held a book signing in the central atrium of Plaza Las Américas. That shopping center’s Walgreens outlet installed a temporary sales stand. Overall sales in Puerto Rico alone surpassed 25,000 copies in Spanish and over 5,000 in English, according to Random House.
Several supermarkets and convenience stores are carrying books too, primarily mass-market books. School supply stores and coffee shops are getting into the game as well. And independent pharmacies looking to compete with Walgreens and CVS are now carrying books.
One positive development already in place: the opening, or revamping, of new bookstores, including Librería Libros AC Barra & Bistro, K&L Books, and the Bookmark, among others.
“When Borders closed, it left a pretty big void for a lot of titles, especially for the English-language readers in Puerto Rico,” says John Orcutt, CEO of JR Blue Label Management, a book distribution company on the island that owned two religious bookstores and in May opened the Bookstore at the San Patricio Plaza shopping center. “This is our first secular store, and we incorporated a cafe and gift section.”
Orcutt remains confident in the prospects of the Puerto Rico book market: “I think the days of the 30,000-square-foot store are kind of gone, but there’s definitely a market for bookstores.”