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Ksenia Batueva

Hola to everybody from Spain! So, the first part of my internship – two weeks, which I spent in Bilbao – is, I regret to say, over and I’m going to let you know how amazing it was.

Published on 23 Feb. 2018


Ksenia Batueva: Bilbao (Spain) 2013

One of the late rainy evenings I arrived in Bilbao, a big city on the north of Spain, capital of the Province Vizcaya, where bookseller Javier Madariaga met me at the station and kindly invited to stay in his gorgeous house for almost two weeks. Javier owns two bookshops in Bilbao: the first one – Astarloa with a great 21-years history – sells mainly antiquarian books about the Basque Country and the Province Vizcaya and also has a workshop for restoration and bookbinding; the second one – Libreria de Bilbao, where Javier’s elder son Iker works – is situated near the Guggenheim Museum and specialized on modern and second-hand books and also on engravings, postcards, and pictures.


My first days in Bilbao were devoted to learning some usual processes of the antiquarian bookshop life: description of new items, handling of Internet orders, receiving unsold books from the auction house etc. Evidently, the description (and valuation) of books is the most common and routine part of the work, but it doesn’t make the process boring. While you are describing the book, you have an opportunity to get a lot of new information and to enjoy the pleasure of seeing beautiful engravings, pictures, masterpieces of bookbinding art. Also you can improve your skills in taking photos. Of course, not every book has remarkable characteristics to mention, but the routine is also a part of the work. All the descriptions at Astarloa are written in Spanish, so I didn’t have a chance to make one by myself (because my Spanish is not so good yet), but for me even observing the process was a great experience. Handling with orders on the main Internet pages (IberLibro – part of Abebooks, Amazon, Uniliber) is also an important part of the everyday work – it has its scheme and certain rules of dealing with clients, shipping and commission, set by sites’ administration.

During this time I had very interesting conversations (or better to say “lectures” – because all the time I had been in a role of a listener) about the history of Basque Country, about the fighting of Basque people for their independence and rights and how all that now influences on bibliophily and the assortment of old books in Bilbao and other cities of the Basque Country. Suffice is to say that among Javier Madariaga’s permanent clients there are some famous bibliophiles, who have enormous private libraries, connected especially with the Basque culture and built with the great help of Javier.

Talking about the Basque subject in the space of Astarloa, it’s impossible not to mention the collection of bibliophilic editions, written and printed almost entirely by Javier Madariaga. There are nine at the moment; all of them are printed on the finest paper and have excellent design and illustrations. All the books are dedicated to different themes, connected with the Basque Country; the quantity of numerated exemplars is 500 for each edition. In December the next book will appear – “Don Quixote en Vizcaya” – it is a new story about the adventures of the famous Cervantes’ character.


One of the noticeable moments in Astarloa for me was the work with very important Spanish bibliographies, such as A. Palau y Dulcet’s “Manual del librero hispano-americano”, A. Nicolas’ “Bibliotheca Hispana nova” and “Bibliotheca Hispana vetus” (the first bibliography in Spain, printed in 1783-1788), Genaro de Sorarrain’s “Catalogo de obras euskaras” (the first bibliography in the Basque Country, printed in 1898), P. Salva y Mallen’s “Catalogo de la Bibliotheca de Salva” etc. Moreover, I found on the shelves facsimiles of some of the first books printed on the Spanish  territory in th 15th century: “El Sinodal de Aguilafuente”, “Les trobes en lahors de le Verge Maria”.

But most of my time I spent in the workshop of restoration and bookbinding – and to be honest, it was a really awesome experience for me, because at my university we don’t have special courses on such disciplines. There, in the workshop, I observed the work of the masters (maybe the best in Spain!) and learnt to do easy things. Now I have some occasions to be proud of myself – I’ve made two books: one with a simple soft Japanese binding and the other with a hard half-leather binding with pressing on it “Mi primer libro” (“My first book”).

Restoration is a long, insistent, even intricate process – it was difficult, but very interesting for me. Now I suppose that restoration is one of the best ways to learn how to keep yourself concentrated – that is funny, because the motto of the restorer in Astarloa is “Ante todo mucha calma” (“First of all stay calm”). I learnt some basic things in restoration: preparing and cleaning up pages, washing pages with special water, repairing paper with special equipment, stitching old sheets. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to finish the whole cycle (re-binding etc.), but I received a lot of useful knowledge. Of course, the things would not have been possible without the great help and incredible support of my teachers!

Among the days spent in Astarloa, I had an opportunity to visit the other bookstore – Libreria de Bilbao. It appeals to younger people (because of its managing director) and has a different assortment: a lot of books about art, literature, engravings by famous Spanish artists such as Chillida, Ibarrola etc.

It’s impossible to be in Spain and not to enjoy all the pleasures it offers, and I’m happy to share my delights with you! So, in a few words my activities comprised: pintxos (it means tapas in Basque language) in the best bars of Bilbao, the 55th international festival of short films Zinebi, the Guggenheim Museum (inside was the temporary exhibition of Antonio Tapies, and outside… I won’t tell you – you should just see how gorgeous it is), Sunday’s flea markets (with a lot of books, by the way), picturesque landscapes with mountains (but, unfortunately, only through the car window, because of the rainy weather). And also I would like to share with you my little personal joy – my Spanish is getting better! This is very important, because now I am in Barcelona, starting to work with Albert Casals, who doesn’t speak English. I will do my best!

P.S. Astarloa impressed me much before I had even seen it. When I was writing my diploma paper half a year ago about the antiquarian book trade in Spain, I saw some pictures in the Internet. But in reality this place is even more beautiful – a true kingdom of old books, the best antiquarian bookstore in Bilbao! Astarloa has a soul, and I am happy that I had an opportunity to touch this magic. And last, but not least, I say many many thanks from the bottom of my heart to Javier Madariaga, Iker Madariaga, Mintxi Borobia, Nekane Lecue, Jon Lecue, Igone Lecue, Begona, Ani, Laura.

Hope you liked my notes from Spain and also hope you will forgive me my mistakes.
To be continued …

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… Two weeks later

Hello, it’s me again! Another two weeks have past, and my today’s post is about Barcelona. The city hasn’t lost a bit of its charm since I’ve been there three years ago, and I was really happy to come back here and to spend these days with Albert Casals and his friends.

Besides being vice president of AILA (the Spanish Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, a member of ILAB), Albert Casals is also president of Gremi de Llibreters de Vell de Catalunya (Guild of Antiquarian Booksellers of Catalonia) and owner of one of the best and most famous bookshops in Barcelona.


Albert has been working with old books for 27 years and has been running his own company since 2003. He owns about 20.000 books: both antique and modern (used) editions in Spanish, Catalan and other languages. Interesting about the way of dealing with books is that Albert divides them into two groups. First one – volumes for selling in the Internet, on the IberLibro page; they all are kept in storage and waiting for the virtual customer. There are approximately 6.000 books here, not much, because Albert works only with one helper – but anyway the quantity is growing. Second group – volumes for sale in the bookstore, at fairs and in printed catalogues; all the rare, interesting, bibliophile editions are first offered here, so that permanent customers of Albert get the priority in buying. He calls it “care about client” and explains that many bibliophiles appreciate the fact of preference towards other impersonal customers. Albert prints and sends out 850 catalogues and receives orders from almost every client (including institutions). Of course, if books don’t have success in this second group, they move to the Internet.

At the moment the owner of Libreria Casals is preparing for the Antiquarian Book Fair in Madrid, the most important event in the antiquarian book business in Spain, which will take place from 12th to15th December. Albert is selecting books for the fair, packing them, fixing the prices and, of course, preparing a special catalogue. That’s why my duties during these days include principally making descriptions of books for the fair and a bit for IberLibro. I did this work under the eye of Albert and his helper Merce, and I learnt a lot of special vocabulary in Spanish and even in Catalan. The books gone through my hands were various: bibliophilic editions, miniatures, some “Don Quixotes”, volumes from private collections with special bindings, first editions of memoirs of very important figures in the antiquarian book trade in Spain (Pedro Vindel, Antonio Palau y Dulcet) etc.

During my time in Barcelona Albert has been so kind doing many things in order to help me with my research work: he introduced me to other booksellers, accompanied me to the Sunday book market, allowed me to use his own library (and even gave me some books), encouraged me to go to the auction. As you remember, Albert is the president of the professional association here, in Barcelona, so he is a great friend of many other booksellers and he decided to introduce me to the owners of Libreria Rodes, Libreria Balague, Libreria Farre. The bookstore of Rodes reminded me a little of Albert’s place – the same spirit and the same impression of iceberg: when you are in the sales zone you can only see the top of the whole thing – accurate bookshelves and a cash-desk; and when you go further into the store, books surround you, they are everywhere: on the shelves in two rows, on the floor, in the boxes and bags, in huge piles mixed with something else (Rodes even has a cat living inside). And at that moment you understand, that bookselling is not just a business to earn money, it’s a lifestyle! The bookshop of Anna Balague is a family business, started in 1923 by her grandfather; now this place is kind of a book boutique and has brightly expressed a feminine style. The successful enterprise of Josep Maria Farre has a lot of items (about 30.000), and it’s also a family business – two sons of Losep Maria work there: the elder one has his own shop and the junior helps his father. By the way, both Balague and Farre pay great attention to Internet catalogues – they have all their books on IberLibro and Todocoleccion.

The visit to the Sunday Book Market on Sant Antoni Square surprised and impressed me much – there were a lot of customers of all ages and social status! I suppose one of the reasons of such popularity are high prices on new books and the unstable economic situation of many people in Spain nowadays. On the market people buy second-hand books about art, history, travelling and cooking, fiction literature and children’s books, magazines and posters, postcards and other paper work; there are two or three places where you can also buy antiquarian books. On this market Albert introduced me to Rafael Sanchez – perhaps, the best bookseller on Sant Antoni, permanent participant of many street fairs; Daniel Rey – famous bibliophile; representative of the Milla family, and first of all, famous for its publishing business.

One of the days Albert sent me to attend the auction dedicated to America’s colonization history. It was held by Soler y Llach, one of the most important auction houses in Spain. It was very interesting for me, because I never had such an opportunity before. I spent there about an hour and a half, observing the process and the customers, who weren’t very active by the way, – the biggest part of all items was sold via Internet and telephone. In the end more than half of the lots remained unsold, despite the very dynamic beginning.

You see, I had very rich and eventful two weeks, owing to Albert, but nevertheless we had enough time to do some things apart from the antiquarian book trade. Albert and his wife Merce took me to the city centre with its beautiful modern and gothic architecture, to the seaside – and I was recognizing places with happiness. They treated me with real paella and Catalonian tapas, showed me charming stores with jamon, sweets and wine. We visited the Picasso Museum and its library with the nice Margarita (where I found some albums about Russian avant-garde books), we tried to visit the Catalonia Library – they couldn’t give me an access to the books, but I had a chance to see the building inside (the thing is that it was built in the14th century as a hospital and was used like this until the 20th century). We also were lucky to see a wedding in Santa Maria del Mar, the famous church in Barcelona; and after that we observed archeological excavations on the place, where there was a market just a few years ego. The government wanted to restore the market, but they found ruins of the old city with a lot of ceramics – and decided to make an exhibition here.

So, I must confess, I was really lucky to have this internship in Albert Casals Libreria, because I had a chance to see and touch very beautiful and extremely rare books, to practice book descriptions in Spanish and to meet the best booksellers in Barcelona. I saw that Albert has the greatest reputation and authority between his colleagues. Albert and especially Merce surprised me a lot with their knowledge of Russian history and art. All the time I felt such a friendly atmosphere and relation to me that I couldn’t even believe we had such a difference in ages, nationalities and lifestyle between us, and I am truly grateful that all those days I felt real care and support! Many many thanks to Albert Casals, Merce Ros, Merce Vila, Anna Balague; Losep Maria Farre and his staff, especially Raquel Delgado; Rafael Sanches, and Margarita from the Library of the Picasso Museum.

I hope you still like my notes and still forgive me my mistakes.

To be continued …

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