Grant Cogswell in conversation with Dylan Brennan.
DB: Tell us about Under the Volcano Books and what brought you to Mexico City.
GC: Under the Volcano Books is Mexico City’s only used English bookstore. All used books. I’m American but I grew up all over Europe and most significantly in Paris and London and Andalucía and, though I came back to the U.S. when I was almost 18 I spent the rest 25 years out of sorts. The first time I ever visited this place, Mexico City, which is ten years ago this year, I just fell in love with it and to me it felt like, for a Californian who grew up in Europe, it felt like a Californian Europe. I said to myself, if my life ever fell to pieces in Seattle I would move here in an instant and it did almost immediately. It took me another four years to get down here and this (Under the Volcano Books) was the thing that was missing. For me, what was missing was an outlet and a centre and a source for literature in English and I felt that I could provide myself with a living here by creating it. I had the great good fortune at the time, at the bottom of the economic crisis in the U.S., to have the father of Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, Stephen Gyllenhaal, decide to make a movie about me. Then all the people that I had gone to high school with on this U.S. Air Force base located on top of the control bunker for all the U.S. missiles, nuclear missiles, in Europe at the time, well, Facebook was kind of cresting, this was in 2008/2009, people were getting together on Facebook from high school, that I hadn’t seen in 25 years saying “What are you doing?” and I could say “Well, there’s this movie being made about me”. “My god, why?” “Well, it’s based on this book that was written about me based on time in which I was active in Seattle politics”. “Oh but what are you doing now?” “I’m doing this”. “Do you need any help?” And so a lot of people I went to high school with and some other individuals that were just dedicated to literature pitched in and got it started here. To me what it is, originally I thought it was gonna be a kind of gathering place for ex-pats and around the same time I realised that wasn’t going to happen I realised I didn’t want that to happen and it’s become a store that kind of belongs to the people who grew up here speaking and reading in English, with some tourists, you know. It really belongs to this city. A good friend of mine, Paul Lozano, told me when I got here, you’re not an ex-pat you’re an immigrant, which is true, I’ll be a citizen in another 2 and a half years. This store is not an embassy or a space station, it’s something that truly belongs to this city and I hope will contribute more and more and interchange with the city itself. The great news we got recently is that I’ve got a partner who’s buying a building for the store. At the moment, we’re located upstairs in a building that belongs to the American Legion which many people mistake for the U.S. embassy, as if the U.S. embassy had a bar when you come in and nobody checked your ID and a dog living on the roof and a bar tender who’s been there for 40 years! So, he wants to expand it out to a larger location. I’m going to the U.S. to buy books for four months and then we’ll have some 50, 000 volumes in stock. But to me it’s a cultural centre for this city that happens to speak English and I try to get the very best of the literature that’s published in our language and to me it’s a way of preserving and keeping it alive, you know most of the literary life happens with individuals writing alone in a room, but there is an aspect of it that can be something between people in the real world and to me, what I want to do is put within range, at the people’s fingertips as much as I can of the full range of the very best of what’s available of English literature. That’s how I found my way in. I found my way in at bookstores and book sales where I would pick something up that would lead me on to something else and what it would lead me on to was the thing that was physically next to the thing that I was buying. I like to say we’re here to try to give you the books which you’re looking for and which you want but we’re more here to give you the book which you don’t know you’re looking for.
DB: Yeah, first time I went in there I was looking for Tristessa by Kerouac.
GC: Did I have it?
DB: No, you never have it.
GC: Ha! I have it a lot and it sells.
DB: But anyway, I was looking for Tristessa but I ended up buying Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan which is fantastic and which I certainly did not know I was looking for. Was there a reason you chose to set up the shop in the Roma district, I mean there are plenty of immigrants and it’s got a great literary history..?
GC: Well Roma kind of picked itself. I figured I wanted it to be somewhere round Roma or Condesa because, as I imagined, my range of customers was kind of going to run along a south-east north-west axis between UNAM and Polanco with Roma and Condesa in the middle and that’s exactly what it’s turned out to be and if I moved to either end of that axis I’d lose the other end. I was on the east side of Roma, closer to the subway line that goes to the university, and when I moved I lost a lot of the university people. I’m hoping to make an offer for a building today to get back over to Insurgentes.
DB: Okay. So choosing Roma didn’t have anything to do with Kerouac, Burroughs and all those boys in the area.
GC: I’m frankly not a huge fan of the Beats. I think they were a necessary cultural phenomenon but none of those books are books that I go back to. It fascinates me that the new building we’re looking at is half a block away from where Burroughs shot his wife but that’s not something that’s been turned into a public memorial or anything like that. So no, it’s just happenstance that I landed in Roma when I got here. I didn’t speak Spanish so I found a place to live in Roma on Craigslist. Perhaps if I’d ended up somewhere else I’d have gravitated towards setting up the store somewhere else but really it just made sense.
DB: So, is Under the Volcano Books here to stay, are you here to stay, is this your home now?
GC: Yeah, I’m gonna be a citizen in about 2 and a half years. They just changed the law, for switching from temporary residence to permanent residence from 4 years to 2 years. For everybody, not just married people. I love this town though the rainy summers are getting longer and longer thanks to the seas getting warmer which sucks. So yeah, I’m staying though I’ll be out of the country most summers, buying books.
DB: Where do you buy your books?
GC: Mostly in the U.S. in little library book sales where they usually cost about 2 dollars at the most. By the time I get books down here it’s not really worth paying more than 2 dollars per book.
DB: What are your big sellers? Anything that surprises you that sells big?
GC: The Carson McCullers resurgence in recent years really surprises me. It’s funny, they kind of move. I mean for a while it was Lolita and Under the Volcano and those would go out the door the same day that I’d put them on the shelf. And then it moved to On the Road for a long time and any of the Margaret Atwoods. And now it seems to be Pynchon, especially Gravity’s Rainbow and maybe Inherent Vice since the movie came out, I’ll come back with a load of copies of that. Who else? Borges, Bolaño, Anne Carson. Very few contemporary poets are big sellers. Anne Carson is one of them. I think I started a George Eliot craze that wasn’t there before because Middlemarch is now my favourite novel and if I were starting the bookstore now I would’ve named it after Middlemarch even though Under the Volcano is sort of locale oriented. Middlemarch, especially if you’re trying to decide who you’re gonna be with for your life, Middlemarch is the guide. It does things that I didn’t think a book could do. And I’ve gotta mention Cormac McCarthy, The Road, that’s one of our big ones. That’s a book that, …I didn’t know that a book could be that frightening but, before that, it was Under the Volcano, I didn’t know a book could do such acrobatics. It’s like a film on paper, it’s really uncanny and I’m glad that we named the store after it really though it drives me crazy when people call the store Under the Volcano (as opposed to Under the Volcano Books) but I should’ve seen that coming.
DB: So you don’t sell many contemporary poets. I gave you a couple of copies of Blood Oranges. They’re still on the shelves I assume?
GC: Actually, I think I might have pushed one of them on somebody. I mean it comes with my huge recommendation.
DB: Any chance of getting the money for that?
GC: Not this minute! But you will get it!
DB: Good, because I have to send some of that to my publishers who are probably reading this.
GC: It’s an amazing book. It has that life to it, that energy, that sense of a public that I really don’t feel that most poetry has had since the Confessional Poets and it’s funny, my customers don’t care about anything after the Confessional Poets. They want Tennyson and Whitman and Yeats and all Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens.
DB: Anything else you’d like to add?
GC: Well, what could I add…This country and this city are so misunderstood by the world and definitely by our next-door neighbours. This city is, or rather was, the best kept secret for so many decades and now the secret is out. The lifestyle is pedestrian, transit, neighbourhood-oriented and throughout the country, it boasts a food ecology that is local and fresh with a cuisine that’s one of the best in the world. And now after five years I can’t imagine living any place else.
Under the Volcano Books, Mexico City’s only used English language bookstore, is located at Celaya 25, Col. Hipódromo Condesa, 2 blocks west of Metrobus Sonora. Under the Volcano Books informs us that their move has been postponed for 2 years due to circumstances beyond their control.