Signs taped to the windows of “Helena de Buenos Aires” on Esmeralda 882 explain that the bookshop has flooded 9 times since 9th December because of the roadworks. “Macri, (City Culture Minister Hernán) Lombardi and Dalco S.A do not care at all,” she says, blaming the mayor and the City Government.
As Elena Padín Olinik opens the door of “Helena de Buenos Aires”, one of the most well-known antique book stores in the city, it is immediately clear how devastated she is. It has been almost two months since a flood caused by a broken pipe ravaged the basement of her store, and Elena has cried every day.
On the 9th December, Elena went down to the basement to discover that the floor had imploded and water had spread over the floor of the 70m storeroom where she keeps 20,000 of her books. Although the room had been designed specially to protect the books from damage by floods or humidity, the water was everywhere. A book lover’s nightmare.
The following day, Elena sent a letter of complaint to the government, but did not receive a response until last Monday, 50 days since the incident. She also contacted Dalco S.A, whose roadworks on Calle Esmeralda caused the pipe to burst in the first place, but they only blamed someone else. Elena was given a reduction pump which broke as soon as she turned it on, and so they eventually resorted to removing the water with buckets, digging a ditch to drain as much as possible from the storeroom.
Even though the water has now been cleared up, the mold keeps spreading; more damage is discovered every day. Fungi adorn the covers of limited-edition books, the pages are stained, and spines are broken.
Elena has been working day and night for the last two months to try and salvage as many books as possible. Before the flood, the basement held over 20,000 copies, many of which are now irreparable. Among the unsalvageable are 22 tomes of the Summa Arts encyclopaedia, the complete works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, many 18th Century prints, and limited-edition maps from as early as the 16th Century.
In the storeroom, a kind assistant is carefully wiping the covers of novels, trying to separate the bad from the ugly. When I ask her what they plan to do with the books which are beyond repair, the assistant simply shrugs, solemnly. “Elena doesn’t want to throw anything away. I simply sort the books into piles; it is up to her to decide what to do with them.”
She lays out the libros on the floor: Borges collections sit next to Japanese flower arranging guides, and special editions of Don Quijote are propped open to dry. “Helena de Buenos Aires” specializes in old, rare and out-of-print books. The store is famous for its collections of gaucho novels, but there are also many books on history, geography and art. There is an impressive amount of Argentine literature, but also much literature from Spain and throughout Latin America, and I even find some vintage copies of classic French novels.
Elena’s greatest fear is that the fungi will spread upstairs. “The mold is a living organism. It is spreading around the bookshop; it’s in the wood, in the air, in the pages.” Although the damaged books in the storeroom are invaluable, the shop contains some particularly special items. Elena points out a map from the 16th century, as well as some limited-edition Argentine works of which she is particularly proud.
To protect the books and stop the fungus from spreading, Elena needs to completely rebuild the shop. The walls need reconstructing, the floor has to be mended, and the light system in the basement needs to be fixed. This will cost at least $300,000 pesos, and that’s without considering the stock itself.
It definitely doesn’t help that the government has barely lifted a finger since Elena first appealed on 10th December; however, no one responded directly to Elena’s cry for help until 10:45 PM last Monday evening.
Unable to do all the work alone, Ms Padín Olinik has appealed to all book-lovers, even “to people I don’t know, who don’t even know who I am.” A photograph of sign on the store window has gone viral in the past few days. Writers, artists and book lovers from all over the world have been sharing the photo on social media sites, trying to raise the public’s awareness of the gravity of the situation.
Elena’s main concern is preserving cultural heritage. She calls herself and other booksellers “guardians of culture”; she is passionate about conserving rare, old and out-of-print books so that others can study them. Elena opened Helena de Buenos Aires in 1998, and has spent the last 17 years collecting and preserving these unique books. She regularly publishes catalogues of her collections, highlighting any new or particularly impressive acquisitions.
Yet the bookseller is surprisingly optimistic. She certainly seems stressed, but who wouldn’t be tearing their hair out in such a situation? However, she just keeps ploughing through the paperwork, determined to restore as many books as possible.
When I ask her what she is going to do, Elena points to a small bookcase in the corner of the shop. A sign is attached: “poco a poco”. Elena smiles, exhausted: “We will get there eventually”, she says.
She is also accepting help from anyone who wants to assist her in sorting, moving and restoring the books.