Walter Palomino sat looking at the camera, surrounded by a books and with his arm resting on a book

The view from Lima: the complete works of Walter Palomino

Walter Palomino rents out the entire first floor of a building adjacent to the gambling hall ‘El Palacio’ and directly faces the redbrick parish of ‘Santo Toribio La Inmaculada’. It sits on an avenue named after our first civilian president but is better, and more aptly known as ‘La Colmena’ (the beehive). The former boulevard is still flanked by the same crumbling, brightly painted manors, caked in soot from the exhaust of constant traffic, spared relief by no rainfall whatsoever. Quite evidently, these homes no longer host the grasping aristocracy who built them over a century ago; following their eventual retreat from the old town, the palatial manors have been suitably repurposed by new tenants as warrens for all kinds of commerce, savoury or not. 

Mr. Palomino is a bookseller by trade, he told me, but he owns no ordinary bookshop. He occupies the vast ground floor of a two-storey apartment building probably built during the late nineteenth century in a dated style often called ‘afrancesado’, basically meaning, ‘French(ish)’. Almost all doors have been removed, or remain invariably open, creating a single continuous space out of several rooms and corridors filled to the brim with books. 

The inner courtyard of the building – Walter mentioned that a restaurant had been there once – was partially covered to allow for the further stacking of books. My initial impression of this place, aside from the sheer volume of books, was the overpowering smell of naphthalene that clung to the atmosphere. When it came to books, he explained: “this country’s greatest ills are humidity and termites”. It seemed that in the uphill struggle of protecting his valuable stock, there were only mothballs to rely on. 

I came to see Walter to interview him – I had told him over the phone that my (as of yet non-existent) readership in ‘England’ would be interested to hear about his story and his business. Maybe I had raised the prospect of attracting foreign buyers for his ample stock of rare antique books, but anyways, he obliged. 

Sat in the midst of his bookshelves, at a worktable where he was finishing binding an old Bible for a client, we began to talk. Not very long into our conversation, he said gravely: “Many (donated) books that cannot be sold are simply made into cardboard or toilet paper. That’s their fate.”

I asked how he had managed to amass his impressive stock of old books – Walter was adamant that it was not a personal collection, almost everything had a price. He explained that his practice was to acquire books through his “contacts”; often, close relatives of some recently deceased owner of a personal library wishing to sell off their inheritance. Many times, he would find himself buying back from an inheritor what he had previously sold to a collector. “The sad thing is that many families aren’t aware of the historical value of the books they own.” 

Many (donated) books that cannot be sold are simply made into cardboard or toilet paper. That’s their fate.

He regretted that many “good-hearted people” might unknowingly donate their priceless books to organisations who – according to Walter – would pulp anything they failed to sell in their charitable auctions. Even while ‘diving’ in the infamous street bazaar of Tacora, one of Lima’s largest flea markets, Walter claimed to have repeatedly found rare tomes discarded as junk. For him, all of this was a dire reflection of a society that had turned its back on the humble book. 

Despite misgivings about the waning appreciation for old books – partly attributed by him to the popularity of ‘telenovelas’ and ‘TikTok dances’ – Walter was still assured that “there will always be a market for these things.” But then he cautioned me:“I don’t want to risk sounding petulant, but I’m the last one left.” 

He conceded that people who sold books were not going extinct, yet he felt that booksellers in Lima were not like him anymore: “There’s none of the training left. There has to be proper training that allows you to separate commercial considerations and see the human side of books.” He explained that his vocation is not only to buy and sell books, but to understand their inherent value and the intimacies of bibliography. This was a trade he began to learn from a young age, when he apprenticed under a veteran bookseller after having had to work hawking newspapers on the old town plazas as a boy. 

Walter was speaking to me abstractly and expansively about the book, but I wanted to find out which ones fascinated him particularly. I asked if there was any point at which he wished not to part with a book and keep it for himself. He reiterated that booksellers cannot afford to be capricious with sales but let slip that: “There was one called ‘Guia de Forasteros’ (A Guide for Strangers) from 1816 (…) or even some of the works of Manuel Atanasio Fuentes alias ‘El Murcielago’ (The Bat).” Like most people, I wasn’t familiar with this ‘Bat’, but I got the point that Walter knew his stuff. He explained that these were books which gave especially detailed past accounts of our city and its people; it also turned out that ‘The Bat’ had been a witty observer of the Lima of his time –  how unoriginal! 

Now, I have to admit that our conversation was unceremoniously cut short. Walter runs a business, and we were (unsurprisingly) interrupted by a sudden visit from one of his clients. I stood back as Walter went to effusively greet the visitors at his door, then I waved politely when he pointed me out and proclaimed to them that he had just been interviewed for an ‘English newspaper’. At this point, no newspaper anywhere had commissioned anything from me. 

… his vocation is not only to buy and sell books, but to understand their inherent value and the intimacies of bibliography.

He presented me with a book titled ‘TRAICIÓN Y TRAICIONEROS EN EL PERÚ’ (Treason and Traitors in Peru). Its cover was a white map of the country on a red background with a rapier, like those wielded by Spaniards, thrusting into an open gash. I found my own name inscribed on the first page. Incredibly, it was a dedication from the client (and author) who just paid a visit.

The contents of the book are a thorough enumeration of, in his humble opinion, any and all spineless traitors against our nation – everyone from Felipillo, the conquistadors’ interpreter, to Mario Vargas Llosa, our one and only Nobel laureate. I sure hope this article doesn’t betray Walter’s sensibilities and land me in the second edition.

Image credit: Enrique Normand Velarde.