Dealers of South Americana: An Interview with Alfredo & Gustavo Breitfeld
When we started the interview Alfredo was at the counter dealing with a potential client, so his son Gustavo sat next to me on the bench and started chatting. (Even though they both protested throughout about their “bad English,” not a verb or preposition was out of place.) We began at the beginning, with a question about how long they have been in business. Gustavo told me that the business was originally Alfredo’s. Alfredo started it in 1967. “I started as a publisher of medical books in Uruguay,” said the returning Alfredo. (Why Uruguay? I asked. It turns out that both of them are from Uruguay, although Gustavo’s mother Susanna was born in Argentina. (Both Alfredo’s wife Susanna and Gustavo’s wife Mariana and their infant child were also present at the booth, adding a comfortable homespun touch to an otherwise somewhat ascetic fair.) “That’s what brought us there,” they both said at once, smiling.) Alfredo did not intend to be a rare book dealer: “I found a couple of rare books some where and got caught by them,” is the way he put it to me; this is surely a familiar feeling to any book man or woman. “At the very beginning, I dealt in out of print and used books,” Alfredo continued. “I was not a dealer of rare books. Then I got more specialized and we became antiquarian booksellers. You have to understand that at this time there was not a big market for rare books in all of Latin America and in Argentina.” Gustavo joined the business 13 years ago. He studied psychology at school and then went directly into the rare book business. No doubt his studies of psychology have helped him to understand some of the especially peculiar psyches of rare book dealers and collectors.
I asked about the scope of the material that they deal in: how is it limited? By language, date, subject, country/continent, etc.? They replied that they try to focus on specialities. “We now consider ourselves a general antiquarian firm with an emphasis on Spain and Spanish possessions in America,” said Alfredo. “Although of course there are fewer and fewer of those possessions,” he added with a laugh. “We like to handle every single rare or curious book that interests us for some reason,” he continued,” but our stock specializes in the Spanish world. We are known to many museums and institutions for this specialty.” It turns out that even though it’s a large world, geographically, it’s a small one in terms of the book trade: The Librería De Antaño is where many prestigious U.S. museums, universities, and other institutions turn to to obtain Spanish-related material.
How has your business changed in the 13 years since you’ve been involved with it, I asked Gustavo, as Alfredo was temporarily away again. “How has it changed?,” he mused. “What we have tried to do every year is to have a very strong international presence and to handle increasingly important material. We used to be a used and out of print bookstore. Now we like to handle only rare and antiquarian works. What have been our changes? We began handling serious books in terms of rarity, value, and so on. This happened about 10 years ago, our embracing of Spain, Spanish language, and Spanish possessions as a specialty. But we do still deal also with some select generalized antiquarian books.”