I’m walking down a deserted Plaza Santo Domingo with a bit of apprehension in my step. It’s just a few days after the peak of the pandemic here in Madrid and I am outside the 1km radius that I have been mandated not to leave. But I had made an appointment at the bookstore and I’m determined to make it. As the “Desperate Literature” sign comes into view, I breathe a sigh of relief and walk in, barely noticing the collection of potted plants that seem to guide me through to the door.
I am immediately welcomed by a feeling of coziness. Having spent the majority of the confinement working on my thesis and unable to read for pleasure, the shelves full of books that adorn every wall from floor to ceiling represent endless possibilities of learning and freedom. The wall directly in front of the entrance has the following quote by Joaquin Font painted on it: “There are books for when you are bored. Plenty of them. There are books for when you are calm; The best kind in my opinion. There are also books for when you’re sad. There are books for when you are happy, there are books for when you are thirsty for knowledge and there are books for when you are desperate.” Having felt each of these emotions several times over during the quarantine, it felt like the perfect place to be.
Desperate Literature is a small, independent, majority English language bookstore near the heart of Madrid. It’s been open for 6 years and is one of only 3 independent bookstores that have english sections in Madrid. It was opened by a group of book fanatics who now own bookstores in New York, Valencia and Santorini. The store is made up of approximately 75% books in English, 15% in Spanish and 10% in French.
Besides being greeted by all these warm feelings, I was also welcomed in by Terry Craven, one of the 4 co-owners of the store. He squirts a bottle of sanitizer into my hands and lets me browse the store. Terry has been at the store for a bit more than 5 years and even lived in the room at the back of the store for more than a year with his then-girlfriend and co-owner, Charlotte. Terry now lives in the building right above Desperate Literature. He has put his blood, sweat and tears into the store.
Before moving to Madrid for Desperate Literature, Terry worked at Shakespeare and Company in Paris for 7 years, arguably the most famous independent bookstore in the world. The store has housed more than 30,000 aspiring writers over the decades, in exchange for a couple of hours of work a day and a promise to spend at least some of their downtime reading and writing; a one-page autobiography is mandatory. “I only lived at the store for about a month when I started, but then I moved out and started working there”, Terry tells me.
During the quarantine, he has been running the store by himself, as his co-owner and employee have both been quarantined outside of Madrid. The store has been taking orders for delivery as well as booking 30 minute appointments for individual visits once it was permitted. “People have been really nice and have been supporting us, we’ve had people come in with appointments and delivery orders from all over Europe, the US and Australia. We even had an order from Qatar for dystopian novels! It’s not only helped us stay open, but also it made us feel like we could really do it.”
Desperate Literature is also well known around Madrid for the various events that it hosts. Pre-Corona, it would host a monthly open mic night for trans and non-binary authors. “This time last year we held Madrid’s first anglophone literary festival with over 60 poets, it was f******* insane. We had people listening from the street through the sound system blasting out into the street. It’s funny, that was a year ago and now we’re only allowed three people at a time.” Unfortunately, all events have been cancelled until further notice, but Terry hopes that they can be back and running again in September.
As he recounts memories of successful past events, I continue to browse the store for a specific book by a Russian author. He pauses and asks me if I’m looking for something specific. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the book in stock at the moment but can put an order in for me and have it in a week. He then goes on to suggest another book by another Russian writer who he says has a similar writing style to the one I was looking for. I pick up the suggested book and two other ones. As I get ready to pay, he gives me a small comment about each of the books that I’ve picked up. “That book is great, look out for this specific theme…” As I leave the store, I notice another customer waiting outside the door, waiting for my appointment to end. I walk back home with my heart racing, only this time it’s not from a fear of being caught out on the streets, but rather from an excitement to read and return to support the store.
Address: Calle Campomanes, 13, 28013
You can check out Terry Craven’s art work at: https://www.instagram.com/terryacraven/
Pictures taken by Rishabh Agrawal
Edited by Annika Bansal