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David González, 54, organizes books as part of the Libros Libres, or free books, project in Caguas, Puerto Rico. Books are extremely expensive here and many libraries were closed after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Gabriela Ortiz Díaz, GPJ Puerto Rico
Education

Take a Book, Leave a Book: Public Book Exchanges in Puerto Rico Provide Alternative to Rising Costs, Under-Resourced Libraries

Puerto Rico

Increasing costs of living and limited library services in Puerto Rico have made it hard for people to access books. To promote access to reading, local people are taking matters into their hands by setting up book exchange projects, so that people can explore the world of reading at lower prices.

CAGUAS, PUERTO RICO —David González, 54, sweats in the midday sun as he organizes stacks of books of all sizes in a wooden bookcase on a sidewalk near the center of town.

On this hot Friday afternoon, he’s loading a bookcase that faces the Santiago R. Palmer public plaza in the town of Caguas, one of the 78 Puerto Rican municipalities, located on the eastern part of the island. A sign on the bookcase announces the name of the community project: Libros Libres, or Free Books.

González says he found out about the project back in 2015 and has become a regular volunteer since he retired from his job at a local pharmaceutical plant. The literary treasures he’s discovered here include his favorite, “The Little Prince.” It’s still on his nightstand today, he says.

González, who has lived in Caguas since he was a child, says this book exchange project is filling the gap for people who struggle with the exorbitant cost of new books on the island.

In Puerto Rico, where cost of living is notoriously expensive, people often overlook the costs of things like books, which also have to be imported to the island, says Luis Negrón, bookseller and owner of Librería La Esquinita, a shop in San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital city.

Negrón says the average cost of a new book has gone up between $10 and $25 over the last 10 years. Often, the cost of a new book is more than the average hourly wage here – $9.76, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Negrón’s bookstore has a section with used books priced between $3 and $6.

Overall, though, sales are still low. A good day at the Librería La Esquinita, usually Saturday, might see 50 people come in, only about 10 of who make purchases.

Norberto González has been a bookseller for 50 years. For the last 26 years, he has owned a bookstore that bears his name. He says the cost of basic goods here are to blame for the rising book prices.

“In Puerto Rico, if you make a 600-page book, it may cost you some $10 or $12. You make that same book in Colombia or Mexico, and it’ll cost you $2 or $3 with delivery and everything,” he says.

With new books out of reach, Janet Fernández, one of the founders of the Libros Libres project, says the island’s public library system is unstable too.

At least a dozen municipal libraries were still closed or being repaired as of July 2018, nearly a year after Hurricane Maria swept over the island, according to a list compiled by Puerto Rico’s national library. More than 90 libraries were listed as open.

But many of those libraries don’t even have books, says Erika Rodríguez, a master’s student who co-authored the 2016 study “Al rescate de las bibliotecas públicas en Puerto Rico,” or “To the rescue of public libraries in Puerto Rico.” She says many of the island’s so-called libraries are “just computer centers. They don’t have books, a book-lending service or a librarian,” she says.

In response to the island’s book shortages, citizen-led efforts are taking off.

Libros Libres, which started in San Juan in 2015 and has since been replicated in other cities on the island, places unmonitored bookcases in public spaces and allows citizens to take and leave books. Volunteers, like David González, keep the shelves organized.

The best part about making books available to the public is seeing how people use and respect the system, Fernández says.

“I’ve gone by first thing in the morning and seen homeless people sitting next to the shelf and reading a book,” she says. Today, there are Libros Libres in nearly every region of the island, including Ponce, Humacao, Cayey, Ciales, Mayagüez, Cataño, San Juan and Caguas.

Librería El Ciclo, another local book project, sells donated books around the city for low prices, says Lisa Ladner, who started the project in San Juan. Ladner says books sell for between $1 and $10 in eight cafes and restaurants across the capital city, as well as in the towns of Bayamón, Caguas and Mayagüez.

“Four years after starting the project, we’re just now recovering our investment and using it to sustain the same book stands,” Ladner says.

Still, sales are low, averaging just about $200 a month. “My commitment is to reading,” she says, acknowledging that the sales are not enough to live on.

As González continues to organize books on a Friday afternoon, he notes that the shelves contain Bibles, university textbooks, cookbooks and books of poetry. He says he often takes books home for his 16 nephews.

“I want them to know I’m involved in this,” he says. “It’s important for them to broaden their minds and read books because not everything is on the internet.”

Allison Braden, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.

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Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It is a self-governed, unincorporated territory of the United States, which means that the United States maintains control of Puerto Rico but people in Puerto Rico elect their own Governor and Assembly.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans have United States citizenship and are permitted to move freely between the United States and Puerto Rico. Puerto Ricans who reside in the United States maintain the right to vote for U.S. president. However, Puerto Ricans who live on the island of Puerto Rico are not allowed to vote for U.S. president.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is home to 3.2 million people. But the number of people residing in Puerto Rico has dropped significantly since 2004. Puerto Rico saw the most significant population drop in the months and years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. 5.6 million people who live in the United States claim Puerto Rican origin. About a third of those people were born in Puerto Rico.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a $73 billion debt to the United States. But as a territory of the United States, Puerto Rico is unable to file for bankruptcy like a U.S. state. In 2016, President Barack Obama and Congress passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) to oversee Puerto Rico’s fiscal plan and address Puerto Rico’s debt to the United States. Seven members, appointed by the U.S. president, sit on the PROMESA board. The Governor of Puerto Rico appoints one ex officio member.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

The complex financial relationship between the U.S. and Puerto Rico dates back to the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly referred to the Jones Act. The Jones Act requires that all goods be shipped to Puerto Rico by a primarily U.S. crew on a U.S. vessel. Based on a 2018 survey by Advantage Business Consulting, the Jones Act greatly increases costs of everyday items for Puerto Ricans, including food. Shipping containers to Puerto Rico costs $3,027 compared to a similar international shipment, not subject to the Jones Act, which would cost $1,206 for the same distance.

Photo by Iris González Román, GPJ Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican politics is dominated by the question of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States. The Popular Democratic Party supports Puerto Rico’s current status, while the New Progressive Party hopes to make Puerto Rico the country’s 51st state. A small third party, the Puerto Rican Independence Party, strives to make Puerto Rico an independent country.

Photo by Gabriela Ortiz Díaz, GPJ Puerto Rico

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