There isn't much 'stuff' in Cuba. With the exception of resort towns with tourist tack, Cuba is not a conventional shopping destination, unless you are searching for one very particular type of item: used books.
Used book stalls line the Plaza de las Armas in the old town of Havana, dusty piles of Cuban history books and biographies of Che and Fidel so big and solid they could be used as furniture. As a reflection of Cuban Communism's preference for education over consumption, the availability of books is a case in point.
On the spectrum of literary enterprises, a gem lies between Havana's outdoor stalls and the country's clean, somewhat sparse new bookshops: La Escalera, in the heart of Santiago de Cuba. The proprietors are some of the most popular men in the world - lining the grey, concrete walls of the slender space (more of a corridor than a shop) are the fistfuls of postcards, photographs, and flags visitors have sent from home-New Zealand, France, Norway, Argentina, Japan. The shop is a typical used bookshop in its creative uses of space, its piles of books with crumbling dust jackets, its large boxes and air of contented disarray. But it is the empty rum bottles festooning the top shelves (what, you thought shelves were for books?) the musical instruments, political posters, newspaper clippings, and literary detritus elbowing for space on every inch of wall and floor that breathe a unique identity into the shop. A single fluorescent bar behind a large poster of a laughing Che throws a weak blue light that stands no chance against the powerful Caribbean sun slanting in through the narrow front door.
The name 'La Escalera' means 'the staircase,' presumably in reference to the short staircase in the back of the corridor-shop which leads to what, from most angles within the shop, appears to be another wall.
For any used bookstore lover, this one is a dream come true, for no better reason than the proprietors. Friendly, engaging, and relaxed, they encapsulate Cuban lightheartedness and antiquarian bookstore charm. One or more of the gentlemen who run the shop will be seated on the staircase, or a plastic beach chair in front of it, smiling and laughing and posing for a photo in front of the wares before standing and effusively pressing the shop's business card into the palm of your hand, in the hopes that a postcard or photo will arrive from you one day.
In a country where access to the outer world is limited, the people rely on visitors to bring the world to them instead. In this small corridor-shop in a corner of Cuba, you can enjoy travelling through the pleasures of an old and dusty bookshop while the locals enjoy travelling through you for the duration of your visit.
265 Calle Jose Maria Heredia, between San Felix and Porfirio Valiente. Around the corner from Museo Provincial Bacardi Moreau
Google map: bit.ly/cvO5gb
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