On the steps up into the Retiro park, on the corner of the Glorieta de Mariano de Cavia, there was a man who sold secondhand books. Four short flights, the steps wound up under low hanging branches, that gave the entrance a tropical feel in summer, and the bookseller would sit half way up the steps in the hottest part of the day, or out in the open at the top in cooler weather and in the winter, when the sun would warm him on the coldest days. There was a low wall running the length of the steps, and off around the border of the park at the top, and after taking his books from a battered old suitcase every morning, he would lay them out along its length, and sit down next to them to read.
He always wore a thin, ancient suit, no tie, topped by a thick coat in winter, and after saying hello to him on my way into the park for many months, always pausing to check out his books, I became friendly with him and discovered his name was José. He wasn’t a pushy seller, and most people who wanted to buy one of his books – mostly old Spanish novels, the occasional art book – would have to rouse him from his reading to get him to tell them the price.
One day I decided to get rid of a lot of books from my house. I had about 500 books at home, and encouraged by Thoreau’s Walden to live a less cluttered life, I decided to release all of the one’s I’d read and thought I’d never read again. I thought of José, that I could give him the books and he could sell them on the steps. Getting rid of a lot of books is harder than it looks, and this seemed like an easy option. Clearly this was his only source of income and I thought he would appreciate some free stock, even if my books were mostly in English. I stuffed a plastic bag with fifteen or twenty and took them to the steps.
“I’m having a clear out of books, would you like these? They’re in English, but someone might like them.”
“Hombre, claro,” he said, of course, and he took the bag and removed the books one by one, carefully laying them out on the steps. There were a handful of Orwell novels, books on writing, some Lorca translated into English, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and a big coffee-table book on Moorish architecture. This last one he seemed particularly pleased with.
“Gracias!” he said, smiling with genuine gratitude. Great, I thought, a useful outlet for my old books. I told him I’d bring more the next day, and headed off for my walk around the park.
On my way home an hour later, I found him packing his suitcase. “Amigo!” he said, “I sold the big book about architecture 5 minutes after you left, for 20 Euros!” He was clearly delighted, and knocking off early.
“I’ll see what else I can bring you tomorrow,” I said, and went home to prepare another bag of books.
For the next week I took him a bundle of books every day, and every day he showed me the same joyous enthusiasm. Then I told him there were probably 200 hundred more in all that he was welcome to, and he offered to come round to our flat to collect them. I gave him the address, and the next day he turned up with an old suitcase. I had all the books piled up in towers by the door, and we quickly filled his case with less than a quarter of them.
“I’ll come back for more tomorrow,” he said. The next day I had one of our own battered old suitcases, carry-on size, prepared for him, stuffed with books. I told him he could keep the case, he filled his own, and left with both. The next day he returned again with the two suitcases, and wheeled away the rest of the books.
I continued my daily walks, chatting to him each day, both surprised that the English books sold to the Spanish people coming in and out of the park. “Algún guiri los compra también,” he told me – some foreigners buy them too. And he always grabbed my elbow whenever he sold one of the big art books – “25 Euros for the big book on Picasso!” – “20 Euros for the book on Spanish Castles!”
So José and I became quite friendly with these short chats. Occasionally he’d say to me “Have you got any more books?” and I’d remind him I had to do some reading before I could give him any more. I never regretted giving him the books for a minute. I found out he lived in shared housing, that this was his entire livelihood, and the more books he could get the more spare cash he had. And as I said, it made my life easy. The quickest way to clear space in my flat.
One hot June day I noticed that instead of reading one of his novels, he was sitting on the wall halfway up the steps pouring over a large sheaf of A4 paper. I asked him what it was, “My manuscript,” he replied, and told me it was a book he’d written in the evenings on a computer he had access to in his housing. He wanted to sell it to one of the big publishing houses one day but had no idea how to go about that. I told him I had no idea either, and left him to it, but while wandering around the park an idea came to me.
I didn’t know how to get a book published with a ‘proper’ book publisher but I knew how to self-publish, I’d self-published a book about my experiences of moving to Spain with one of the internet print-on-demand services. On my way back I told him about it. “You could get your books printed and sell them yourself on the steps.” He loved the idea but despite my pleas that it was easy, he pointed out he had no idea how to navigate a process as complex as that, and I knew he was right. I had years of experience playing around online, a credit card, a personal internet connection, an email address – he had none of these things. I told him I’d think about solutions and walked home in the heat.
Of course, I knew immediately what the solution was. If I could get a digital copy of the book, I could do it all for him, it would probably only take a day of my time, I could upload the book, knock together a cover image, and order copies to my flat for him to collect and sell on the steps. And so began a brief collaboration with José. To my amazement he brought me a pen drive with his manuscript on it 24 hours after I’d asked for it (“I’m not that disconnected,” he said) and I took a picture of him on the steps for the author photo, and showed him various photos of the park and old Madrid for him to select for the cover.
What was the book about? It was the story of his life, from growing up in a village in Segovia, to making his way by foot to Madrid in the 50’s as a child, and his adulthood in every conceivable corner of the city since. He knew Madrid and its histories better than anyone I’d ever come across, and he’d put it all down in print. “I love books”, he told me, “How can I not write my own? Now we publish it and see what happens!”
Two weeks later I had a test copy of the book in my hands and rushed out to the steps to show José. “Joder,” shit, he said, “I can’t believe it – this is fantastic!” and he shook my hand while looking deeply into my eyes and grinning. He sat straight down to read it, I left him, did a circuit of the park, and when I found him on my way back, he told me, “I’ve sold it! 10 Euros! The first sale of my own book! Tell me, how do we get more?”
I said I could order as many as he wanted, that they would cost 5 Euros a piece, and that if he wanted I could put up the money and he could pay me back when he’d sold the books. “No chance,” he said, pulled 100 euros from his pocket, and told me to order 20 immediately. A week later he came to the flat to pick them up, and rushed off to the steps to sell them. A week later he ordered 20 more, and 20 more the week after that. This was followed by a mammoth order of 100, for which he drew me into the undergrowth behind the steps before pulling 500 Euros from his pocket and shoving it into mine. “The people that have been buying my old books forever all want a copy of my own book! It’s unbelievable – they see my author photo here on the steps, and the photo of the park on the front, and they want to buy it – what’s more, they come back later and tell me it’s very good! Some people come by recommendation from a friend.”
I probably helped José to print and sell around 350 books before he disappeared in the late Autumn. The weather was starting to get cold, I assumed he was taking a break from the steps, perhaps, I dreamed, he was writing another book. In any case, he never came back. A few weeks after his disappearance another man took over his spot on the steps, selling his own secondhand books. I missed José, and soon my dreams of his hiding out to write more turned to worry that perhaps something had happened to him. He was always a little frail, had smoked, maybe he’d become seriously ill, or had a heart attack. With time we moved house, my walks continued in another part of the city, and I forgot about him.
About three years later on a Sunday morning, my wife came up to me in the kitchen to show me a page in the El País newspaper. “Isn’t this the guy from the steps?” she asked. “Yes! It’s him!” I said, and grabbed the paper. It was a profile piece on José, a publishing sensation, discovered by an editor a few years before on her way into the park. She’d bought his book, thought it was the most wonderful history of the city she’d ever read, and signed him up the moment she finished it to publish the book properly and begin work on another volume.
My dreams of him writing away had turned out to be true! There was an image of him at his desk grinning as wildly as ever, wearing a newer suit in exactly the same style as the old one. The article said that he’d got help from ‘a passer by’ who had helped him print the first copies of his books while he worked selling secondhand books from a corner of the Retiro park, and that since then the book had been taken on by this major publishing house and was now in its fifth edition having sold 200,000 copies around the whole of Spain and in Latin America. José now enjoyed literary dinners, gave talks in the Circulo de Bellas Artes, and lived in his own rented flat in Malasaña, one of the nicest old parts of the city.
I was incredibly happy to read all this. “Why don’t you seek him out, go and say hello?” asked my wife. “Yes, I might,” I said, but in the end I never did.