Aaron and I were scrunched into the back of our friend Maki’s white sedan on our way to a wedding reception in downtown Mexico City when we first heard of El Burro Culto (The Cultured Donkey), an invitation-only bookstore full of rare editions and located somewhere in an apartment complex in La Condesa, a trendy neighborhood just south of downtown. Or maybe it was in nearby La Roma. Maki’s husband, a writer and Mexico City native, knew the general area of the store but not the address. He believed it was in a building along Avenida Álvaro Obregón, but wasn’t too clear on the exact location. He harbored greater certainty about a few other points: “You can’t see it from the street. You have to go with someone who knows the owner and can get you in.”
In case you are not clear on what I am saying to you, dear reader, this is what I am saying to you: there is a fucking secret bookstore in Mexico City and we set out on a mission to find it.
Late Sunday morning, we commenced our online research in an effort to ascertain a more precise location of the store. We came across several articles about the place that name-dropped famous writers who shopped there, but those articles invariably mentioned that the address was a closely-guarded secret among the Mexico City literati. Nonetheless, our spirits were high. We were fresh off a major diplomatic victory (which you can read about here), and what we lacked in knowledge we more than made up for in hubris. So, based on the evidence we’d gleaned up to that point, we plotted a general search area on the map and taxied to La Condesa.
We stepped out of the cab to a muted high noon. The neighborhood had been hit hard by the earthquake a few weeks prior, and many businesses hadn’t yet re-opened. Yellow tape was still strung across cracked facades, and fallen power lines dangled listlessly along the avenue. A woman was shuffling into a newspaper kiosk and we approached her with our most formal “usted.”
“Excuse us, señora. We’re looking for a bookstore called El Burro Culto. Have you heard of it?”
“El Burro Culto? No. I guess that makes me the burra, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
And thus, it went.
We asked a few other shopkeepers to no avail. We stumbled upon a locked gate that protected a narrow passage containing what looked like apartments. One of those apartments had a large letter B posted outside. B for Burro, perhaps? We interrogated the owner of the Middle Eastern restaurant next door. “Nope,” he said. “Never heard of it.”
Then, an idea. We walked into a nearby boutique hotel and inquired with the concierge. He was unfamiliar with the store but began making phone calls to coworkers and cab drivers. One such driver provided an address. We went to said address, and there was indeed a bookstore there. As we suspected, however, it was not El Burro Culto. It was, though, a lovely little independent book shop and we struck up a conversation with the owner. We had already made the rounds through a sizable chunk of Mexico City’s bookstores, and in so doing had made a few new friends. As it turned out, we shared a mutual acquaintance with this owner and as he grew a bit more comfortable with the random gringos who had darkened his door on a slow Sunday, he dropped a bomb — he knew the owner of El Burro Culto and could provide us with his phone number.
I dialed the digits and Max Ramos, the owner of El Burro Culto, answered. I said I was in town from Washington with a book collector (basically true), and quickly explained how I’d procured his number. Was there any chance, I asked, that we could get in to see the store today? He told me to wait for a text.
A few minutes later, Mr. Ramos texted us instructions: go to the corner of X and X at 2 p.m. and then text me back. The corner was one block from where we had first gotten out of the taxi a few hours earlier. We arrived and I texted him. He responded: “I will be there in two minutes and 10 seconds.”
Roughly two minutes and 10 seconds later, an unassuming man with a thick head of black hair and a black goatee streaked with gray approached us. We said our hellos and he led us into a nearby apartment complex before opening an otherwise unmarked and unremarkable door on the first floor of the building. Behind the door, five rooms and several hallways of books were lying in wait.
The store was stuffed with books in several languages and lightly adorned with Mexican kitsch and other artifacts. The owner ushered us patiently through each room and explained the logic of the store. He sold nothing online, unusual for a rare book dealer. All of his sales, he said, came from word of mouth and personal relationships he had developed with collectors over the years.
Time was now our biggest obstacle. Aaron had a flight to catch that afternoon, so we just had one hour to dig into the stacks. Even so, we ended up finding a few gems. Among other things, I copped a thin volume of poetry by Argentine poet Roberto Juarroz which is signed and inscribed to a lover of his, Mexican poet Ulalume González de León. Aaron purchased an early French edition of Baudelaire’s “Flowers of Evil,” and a Spanish edition of “Old Man and the Sea.”
With Aaron’s airport Uber just minutes away, we reluctantly said our goodbyes to Max Ramos and swore a solemn bookseller vow to never disclose the address of El Burro Culto.