Before I moved to Latin America I was living in Barcelona, where a huge expat population, a functioning postal system, and Amazon books made it very easy to pick up popular titles in English. I also had a Kindle before I came here and I used it all the time, however, it got all scratched up and I gave it to my dad. So, when I arrived in Latam, I found myself reading books on my iPhone and laptop, both of which are uncomfortable even after a short period of time.
I’ve reached out to friends to ask for books (thank you amigos), and I’ve visited a handful of bookstores, but still, after eight months in Cuenca, I’ve barely found anything that really interests me. I’m not into murder fiction or romance, which cuts out 90% of what you find in the secondhand bookstores here, and the remainder of non-fiction often seems to be dominated by US history and politics. I was very fortunate to find a biography of Genghis Khan, an anthropology book about human nature in the face of disaster, and a book about the first Evangelists in Papua New Guinea.
Out of personal interest, and the shared sentiment of close friends that finding books here is either difficult or overly expensive, I decided to record a video visiting a handful of bookstores to do a more thorough scout.
This article is designed to accompany the video below and provide additional insight into finding English language books in Cuenca.
Marc’s Consignación / Marc’s Consignment
Location: On the corner of Simón Bolívar y Miguel Heredia
Over the past few months, whenever I’ve shared my frustration at not being able to find good books in English, I’m usually recommended the typical bookstores, but some go as far as to promote ‘Consignación Stores’ as another good source of literary delights. Marc’s Consignación was a top-quality recommendation, as I was surprised by how good the titles on offer were, despite the fairly small selection. One full bookshelf and a few stacks of books could be found dotted around the shop, with 90% of the titles in English and 10% in Spanish, approximately.
This consignment store functions as so: you have an item you want to sell, so you entrust Marc to sell it for you. When it sells, he gets 30% and you get 70%. Simple! This doesn’t apply just to books, but to furniture, appliances, instruments, art, and more.
Of the decent titles I did find, I still thought the prices for secondhand books were considerably high, going from $6 upwards. I have to remind myself that I’m not in Europe anymore, and getting ‘as new’ popular titles delivered the next day from Amazon for just $3 is simply not going to happen.
Location: Benigno Malo y Juan Jaramillo
This is a huge bookstore, but 99.9% of the titles are in Spanish. When you go in, the friendly receptionists will show you their range of English books, which consists of a singular carousel at the front desk. It’s a small selection of classics, featuring Hemingway, Bronté, and Austen.
Despite such a limited range, I wanted to include SodiLibro because about half of the books in English are actually Bilingual Editions. For many moving from English-speaking countries to Cuenca, the language can be a bit of a barrier, but if you have a genuine interest in this culture and settling in, it’s really worth making the effort to learn a little Español. These books are incredibly useful for that reason, with each page having the English and Spanish versions of the text, giving the reader the opportunity to take a pencil and make notes as they learn new words along the way.
Location: Presidente Cordova y Luis Cordero – find the small entrance and go up one flight of squeaky stairs
With over 25,000 books, not only is this a book-lovers dream, but it’s also a bit of a nightmare in terms of navigation. For some, the chaos of their collection is a beautiful thing, and their readers’ hangout has become a highly ‘instagrammable’ location. The back room contains thousands of books in English, some on shelves, some stacked against the wall, some laid out on the floor, and others in cabinets.
There’s very little in the way of organization – no alphabetized titles or anything like that. However, the central bookshelf that goes down the middle of the room appears to be predominantly fiction, whilst the books on the floor are more likely to be non-fiction. Hardbacks are usually in the cabinets, but not always. Among the books, you might find some of the strangest titles ever, manuals for old computer games, and outdated guides to very niche concepts. As you search, the light will pour in from the ceiling-height windows and the floorboards will creak beneath your feet. It’s a sensory experience, with dusty air free of charge.
The first time I came in, I spent the best part of two hours with my head crooked to the right trying to read the names on the spines, hoping to unearth some literary gems. I did actually find a total of 5 books worth buying, and since it was my birthday, he gave me a Noam Chomsky book for free. I was offered coffee multiple times and all of the old boys were kind enough to greet me and make small talk.
Libros/Librería Mauricio often feels more like a dusty hangout for bookworms who want to chat with the group of resident Ecuadorean gentlemen who sip coffee, crack jokes, and seem to be the best of friends. They always remember my name, treat me warmly, and have even tried to set me up with a granddaughter (she’s a local model and way out of my league). Even if you don’t find something worth buying here, the whole experience is worth going for. Who knows, you might even make some new friends (and get a date).
Used Books Librería
Location: Hermano Miguel y Honorato Vásquez
I’ve been in here a few times now and I never quite find something that I really want to read at their price point. I feel that some of the titles are a bit expensive, considering they are secondhand and the demand for English books is not huge (or not well met). Regardless, the selection is decent and very well organized, with higher average quality than some of their rivals, and some very well-known titles.
When I went in to film the video, the Manager was keen to show me their newspaper clippings from features during the pandemic and how they managed to survive and thrive in difficult times. I do often wonder how these kinds of used bookstores fare, limited by the lack of a postal system, but helped by the absence of Amazon.
Location: Hermano Miguel y Calle Larga
This is my top pick for the best place to find books in English in Cuenca. The first time I came here I bought three books from a single bookshelf. The second time I came here, as you’ll see in my video, the back room was open. An ENTIRE room dedicated to English books, all organized alphabetically. The only downside is that the whole room is fiction, which is amazing if that’s your thing, but if you read to learn, it has its limitations.
Don’t forget your yapa!
Location: Mariscal Sucre y Hermano Miguel
American readers – think Barnes and Noble. Brits – think Waterstones. Canadians – think Indigo. Australians – think Dymocks. LibriMundi is Ecuador’s equivalent of a popular, mainstream bookstore, with all of the latest and most well-known titles on the shelves. Of course, such a great selection of important books will come at an expected premium.
The English section is not enormous, but it is seemingly substantiated by a ‘quality over quantity’ policy. You’ll find great autobiographies from Mandela, Biden, and others. You’ll also find other popular authors like Malcolm Gladwell and Yuval Noah Harari.
To locate the English book section, head through the main entrance, past the best-selling Spanish books, take a right and ascend the stairs, then turn left at the top and find the shelf with a red ‘English Books’ label. Next to the shelf is a table displaying a range of popular classic children’s books from Roald Dahl, Dr. Seuss, and Jeff Kinney.
By the end of my search, I essentially confirmed what I knew:
- Carolina has the best selection of fiction and non-fiction books and is in the best location
- Libros Mauricio is the best overall experience and the largest number of titles on offer (but of dubious quality)
- Used Books Librería offers the best range of graphic novels in English
- SodiLibro has a solid but small selection of bilingual edition classics for those who appreciate fine literature but also want to learn Spanish
- Getting books would be much easier if there was Amazon here…
I hope this guide helped you, but what would be even more helpful would be for you to reach out and recommend even more places that sell English books so that we can update this guide in the future!