Alins is a village in the Pallars Sobirà region of the Catalan Pyrenees that has just 80 inhabitants. In an imposing natural landscape, it is the type of place that many people, half-caged in flats in cities, will have dreamt about during the long days of lockdown. This was the case of journalist and nature lover Meritxell-Anfitrite Álvarez, who a year ago, in the early days of the Covid crisis, was living and working in Madrid. However, the pandemic prompted her to change direction and she decided to go to Alins, which was her grandmother’s village, and open a bookshop, Natura Llibres, which specialises in nature and mountain books and which has been open since December 2020.
Why a bookshop?
I wanted to come to the village with a project that would enrich me but also the village. During the lockdown, I came to think that the only thing I needed to live on was nature, the outdoors, and books. I thought I could bring these passions together by opening a bookshop specialising in nature and mountains. As for the village, there were no bookshops. To get to the nearest bookshop you had to travel an hour by car. Now Natura Llibres is another service in the region.
How hard is it to build a network of readers in a village of 80 inhabitants?
It is a village with more books than inhabitants! When I started telling people about my idea, I was told that people don’t read here, and I thought, “I’ll make them read somehow!” But I’ve found that there are people who read and who have the same need as me. They appreciate this place. The idea is also to organise activities to attract people to the bookshop to arouse their curiosity about books. I also have a small café area and a meeting point that has been well received. It’s about diversifying and organising activities, because there are people who may not even know they like reading.
Does the bookshop’s viability depend on tourism as much as local people?
It’s mostly for the people around me. Tourists are like a bonus, especially now that there are fewer of them due to the pandemic. Also, from what the villagers have told me, the strong tourist season is in the summer, when it is a non-stop visitors.
Could the Internet be the key to making Natura Llibres work?
I’m uploading the catalogue to the website now, but since I’m doing it on my own, I’m taking a long time. I think we should be on the internet, but I have my doubts. The competition is much greater, because you can buy books anywhere, and you have to ask what makes someone decide to buy a book from me rather than another bookshop? Having said that, the other day a man from Seville asked me for some books via WhatsApp, and that made me think, “Okay, I’ll send them to you, but what about all the pollution it will cause? Isn’t there a bookshop nearer to you?” I have an internal debate going on that it might be contrary to my ideas, sending a book to the other end of Spain when I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for in a bookshop nearby.
The bookshop also sells recycled stationery and locally sourced agri-food products. There’s a specific concept behind it, a commitment to nature.
I try to be consistent, but sometimes the world makes it difficult for you. For example, I don’t give out receipts, I send them by email, the bags are recycled, and when sending a shipment I look for a transport company with a policy of sustainability and that is respectful towards the environment. When you ask about that they look at you as if you were an alien. Sometimes it’s hard to be consistent with your ideas.
As a journalist, do you still write?
I continue to work for some media outlets, but now I’m more busy with the bookshop’s launch so I’ve reduced the freelance work quite a bit. In addition, the pandemic has meant that the first thing media outlets have cut is external contributions.
Have the mobility restrictions affected the business?
Since I opened the bookshop in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, I can’t really compare how it was before. The reception I’ve had since I opened the bookshop has been very good. I’m looking forward to what it will be like when everything opens up, both in terms of trade and mobility between counties. I opened the bookshop at the end of December 2020, when there were only a few tourists in the village, which is not the same as it will be in the summer, when the hotels and campsites are full. I’ll see how it goes this first summer.
The bookshop is in the old family home. What is your family history?
My great-grandfather was a republican mayor in the village in 1939 at the end of the Civil War. When he heard that the national forces were arriving, he left for Andorra, fearing that they would kill him. He left with his family – my grandmother and her brother – and with other local people. They went to Andorra and stayed there, which is where my mother and then my brother and I were born. The bookshop is in what used to be a cow yard. A few years ago, we renovated the house the cow yard became a garage. And it’s this space that I’ve turned into a bookshop.