Wild Books in Oaxaca
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s no place like home to read good books, and this library feels like home.
The handmade dresses scattered across the stone steps are brighter than any neon sign. As you bend down to admire them, you try not to dirty them with your esquites — corn doused in mayo and sprinkled with cheese and spices. A man emerges from the doorway and shyly says he needs to take your bag if you’re going to enter. You agree. He tucks your bag away in a closet disguised as a bookshelf. Then you turn to the right — and you’re in sudden, wordless awe.
At the library for the Institute of Graphic Arts in Oaxaca, the books go way beyond bookish. Older and more beautiful than any you’re likely to have seen outside glass cases, these books are full of color, textures and riveting images. And just to be clear: They aren’t behind glass. No one will stop you when you pick them up, turn their pages and marvel at the illustrations within. The collection was built by the famous Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo, who still does everything from buying the books to designing the floor tiles.
When Toledo founded the library, in 1988, it comprised one small front room in the house that he shared with his family, filled with books from his personal collection and that of fellow Oaxacan artist José F. Gómez. That front room is now a gift shop, and some 25,000 books fill five other, large rooms. The rest of the building, which includes a gorgeous courtyard covered by a lush canopy of leaves, holds an affiliated café and museum. With the library bursting past capacity, a second location was opened a couple of blocks away in 2011.
The original building has been tweaked here and there — a doorway closed up, a wall shortened — but it remains essentially the same. “The rooms maintain this homelike vibe that sets us apart from other libraries,” says Imari Resendiz, who manages communications for the library.
This homelike vibe has everything to do with Toledo’s vision. “Whether it’s your first experience with a cultural event, or whether you’re someone who’s done a lot in the arts, you come here and you feel comfortable,” Resendiz says. Like almost everything in the city, the library is quaintly small and impeccably clean. And, with doors that remain open until 10 p.m. and long wooden tables that are simply and comfortably varied, you truly do feel at home. The library’s goal, Resendiz says, is not only to “serve the people of Oaxaca” but also “any person who visits Oaxaca can take initiative to teach themselves.”
It’s this comfort — and the fact that the collection is renowned as one of the best in Latin America — that attracts more than 100 visitors from all over the world to the two locations every day. To serve these visitors, 35 people work in the two locations. Ariana Sixtos, director of the new location, describes the lack of cultural centers in Oaxaca, and says “the weight of Toledo’s name has helped this library maintain a certain prestige, a certain renown.” Resendiz calls the library “emblematic for the state of Oaxaca” and says the organization as a whole has “really brought a lot to the city and helped reinforce its identity in many different ways.”
“And it hasn’t stopped growing,” Resendiz proudly points out. Of the thousand books added every year, she says, many are donated by the writers and artists who’ve created them, who “want their books to have a place here.” As she says this, we’re poring over books on indigenous Mexican hieroglyphs, the most popular section of the library.
This is exactly what’s so special about the library for the Institute of Graphic Arts in Oaxaca — right next to the most cutting-edge innovations of the present, you find a fastidious examination of the past.