The Hay Literary Festival in Cartageña de Indias, Colombia, is one of the hidden gems on the annual worldwide literary calendar—a gathering every January of major Hispanic writers along with a sprinkling of major English-language authors—over 90 writers spread out over four days in the magical city of Cartageña.

A highlight of my attendance last year was observing the bustling energy of Ábaco Libros y Café, a small literary bookstore and cafe in the heart of the walled city of Cartageña. The store is near the Theater Heredia, the main venue of the festival—and not so coincidentally near the home of Gabriel García Márquez, the spiritual godfather of the Latin American literary world affectionately known here as Gabo. Throughout the festival weekend, the bookstore was packed with attendees rushing in to buy the next speaker's books; and its cafe tables were filled with international press interviewing festival writers and drinking café con leche.

This year, I was determined to find out more about bookselling in Colombia. Interviewing one of the two business partners in Ábaco Libros seemed a good start. Néstor Rimoli kindly agreed to such an interview during one of their busiest weekends of the year.

Ábaco Libros y Café was launched seven years ago by Rimoli and Maria Elsa Gutierrez. The two met in the 1990s when Rimoli moved from Buenos Aires to Bogotá for a job as a systems engineer in a technology company. Gutierrez, an industrial engineer, was the general manager of the company. They worked together for a number of years prior to Rimoli's return to Buenos Aires to work in the technology sector. In 2003, Gutierrez contacted Rimoli to see if he wanted to participate in the venture to launch Ábaco in Cartegeña. He agreed immediately.

According to Rimoli, Colombians are very social people and enjoy a thriving cafe society. Before the bookstore cafe opened, there were few options within the walled city catering to this need for a cultural gathering place. Cartageña was just awakening from the violence that had smothered cultural and social life elsewhere in the country. The business partners' goal was to create not only a bookstore but a comfortable place for social connection.

Around the time they opened, a real estate boom commenced, with rapid renovations of centuries-old buildings into private second homes for Bogotá and Medellín residents. Boutique hotels and wonderful restaurants accompanied the boom. As the violence in Colombia receded, Cartageña become an international cultural destination—the Hay Festival being one example. The city also hosts an acclaimed classical music festival in early January and a film festival in February.

In the beginning, the store was a “hobby” for the two owners, but over time the store has becomes a fixture in Cartegeña's cultural life, not only a preferred launching site for new titles but a place for famous Latin American writers to have book signing and for the literary public to congregate, much like any prominent independent bookstore in the United States.

However, bookselling in Colombia, especially in financial terms, is in many ways different from what pertains in North America. For example, Colombian booksellers receive discounts in the range of 30%—35%, as opposed to around 50% up North, but there are two punch lines to this low margin. First, retail price is still sacred in Colombia: there is virtually no discounting except for a few bestsellers in supermarkets, and there is no pricing pressure from online retailers. Secondly, publishers sell books to retailers on a true consignment basis. Booksellers report what they have sold at the end of each month, and that is the basis for what they pay the publishers. They do not pay for unsold books on the shelves—significantly changing the equation on the capital that must be tied up to operate a bookstore.

The exception to the consignment practice are English-language books, which are sold on an outright, nonreturnable basis. Presumably this is a significant factor in why Colombian booksellers don't stock much inventory in English—even in those stores in Cartageña and Bogotá that might have English-speaking visitors. Although this may be a surprise to many, North Americans have a reputation for not being great book buyers, and that might certainly be another factor in the low inventories of English-language books. Ábaco's best non-Colombian customers, according to Rimoli, are Brazilian, Venezuelan, Spanish, French, and Italian.

Books in Colombia are expensive, compared to the U.S. Most of the Spanish-language titles come from Spanish, Mexican, and Argentinean publishers. Popular Spanish-language writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Almudena Grandes are, understandably, lower priced ($15—$20 for a trade paperback) and track closely to what we would expect for pricing in the U.S. However, Spanish editions of foreign writers are considerably higher. Books by Ian McEwan and Michael Ondaatje seemed to be running in the range of $30+ in trade paperback. Jon Lee Anderson is widely published and popular in Latin America. The English-language version of Anderson's Che, was selling for about $45in paper; the Spanish version was selling for about $35 in paper.

Online Retailing

In our initial conversation, Rimoli was emphatic that online retailing is not yet a significant competitive factor in Colombian bookselling, at least for the sale of Spanish-language books. Given the sweep on e-tailing in other book markets, I was skeptical of this claim. But, given Rimoli's high-tech background, he is, as it turns out, very well informed on consumer adoption of new technology in South America.

Rimoli sees three reasons for the slow embrace by Colombians of online retailing. First, he says, is a cultural issue. Colombians are very social people; they like to establish a dialogue, talk, discuss; they like to see and touch the things they want to buy. Second, Rimoli says that many Colombians feel uncomfortable providing their credit card data in online transactions. And third, shipping costs are expensive in the country.

As a result, Colombian bookselling is still mostly a bricks and mortar island in the increasingly online universe.

Adoption of Digital Books

Rimoli feels that Colombia, and Latin America generally, will not embrace digital books quickly. He blames this in part on the very high price (for Latin Americans) of the new technology.

I expressed some surprise at the prediction, given the widespread use of smartphones in Cartageña; at every Hay Festival event, nearly everyone around me was busily checking their e-mail during author presentations. I wondered whether this embrace of smartphones combined with the aforementioned high price of printed books in Colombia might make the case for Colombians quickly embracing the new reading platform. But Rimoli countered that the Hay Festival audience was not at all representative of the broad middle class of Colombian society.

Resilience of Colombian People

Having visited Bogotá and Cartageña over the past two years—and bookstores in both cities—I want to close by praising the resilience of ordinary Colombian citizens and booksellers in reclaiming civic life out of the cycle of violence that nearly destroyed their country. Ongoing challenges remain, surely, but it is truly startling to visit Bogotá, for instance, and consider that within the past 10 years, FARC was firing mortars at the presidential palace. In that context, the role of booksellers providing a cultural, intellectual, and social “safe haven” cannot be overstated. In North America, we booksellers sometimes puff up our chests about being on the front line of defending the freedom of thought; Colombian booksellers have had to walk the walk for two very tough decades. What Rimoli and Gutierrez have accomplished with Ábaco Libros is noteworthy and commendable. I'm sure that all of Cartageña is grateful for their vision seven years ago to launch this bookstore cafe, which has indeed provided a safe haven for community, and of course access to literature and ideas.