Thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of its proprietors, La Perla Records & Books may be the biggest and best used book and record shop in Latin America.
Some 15,000 books in English line the shelves of this establishment and touring them with their owner, Gerry Smith, is quite an experience.
“If you’re interested in gastronomy,” he told me, “I have about 300 books on cooking and food, but if you’re looking for literature, you might enjoy these great books by Willa Cather, or those by Upton Sinclair, over there.”
Smith handed me one of the volumes by Sinclair. “Albert Einstein said if you really want to understand the history of the first half of the 20th century, read Sinclair’s Lanny Budd series. These are the books to read. I love them. I think I’ve read them five times.”
As you must have already guessed, the books in this shop did not land on its shelves by accident, but were hand picked with understanding, care and, I would say, with love. “This next section is Western Americana,” Smith went on. “Most of these come from my personal collection.” Note that, with a few exceptions for rare books and first editions, most books at La Perla sell for between 70 and 200 pesos.
We wandered out to the store’s balcony overlooking Guadalajara’s Zona Rosa and I asked Gerry Smith to tell me a bit about himself.
“When I was in my 20s,” he said, “I turned into an avid reader. Books became my great love and I’ve spent the last 30-some years reading. Wherever I lived, all the librarians knew me and whenever I traveled, I’d stop at every bookstore I could find and any junk shop I thought might have books. I’ve surely been in a thousand bookstores in the U.S. And I also started buying books in those days.
“So I ended up with a houseful of books and then I started filling my brother’s house with them. And now, after about six years in Mexico, I ended up with yet another house full of books. Inadvertently, I had become a book expert, so I finally decided to open my own bookstore.”
La Perla Records & Books is located in the middle of Guadalajara at 1530 Calle Pedro Moreno. The entrance is small and unassuming, but as you climb the stairs you are greeted by the faces of Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills and Nash and other rock legends. These posters and album covers make it clear that at La Perla you will find not only books, but an extraordinary collection of vinyl records as well, owned by Ernesto “Bola” Domene.
“Bola really knows music,” Smith told me. “He has a great collection that nobody else can match . . . and he has a passion for music.”
A few weeks later I returned to La Perla and had an opportunity to interview Bola Domene.
J.P. Why do they call you Bola?
I’m the 12th child in my family and I was born fat, so they called me Bola (Butterball). I’m the owner of La Perla Records and Books. Gerry and I collaborate together. I started with this as a record shop, a subsidiary of Roma Records of Mexico City. Then Gerry came along and said, “You know, my dream is to rent a room where I can put shelves full of books.
Well, I liked the idea of books and records together because there’s a movement now to go back and rescue technology that we’ve left behind. We are saying ‘Stop the frenetic rush! Stop and make time for your soul.’ So I love the idea of having records and books together.
Gerry and I are very happy we did this. For both of us this place has turned into a kind of sanctuary, our refuge. At a certain time we also tried to put a restaurant here. Well, it didn’t work out, but the beer fridge stayed and we are delighted that now we have both beer and culture in the same establishment and as far as I am concerned, these two should be together all the time!
J.P. How did you get interested in music?
Well, I’m a drummer and since the age of 15 I’ve been with a legendary band from Guadalajara called Rostros Ocultos. It has nothing to do with the occult: the name just means Hidden Faces.
As for the music industry, I think it has undergone more changes than any other during the last few decades. We made a great leap from analog to digital, but a teacher of mine, a painting teacher, opened my eyes to a new way of looking at an old LP. He saw each record album as a work of art: the music, the cover and even the information on the jacket: where was it recorded? Who played which instrument?
All of it together is like an engraving or a limited-edition book. It’s fascinating and it makes you want to collect them, to play them and even to caress them. So if the perfect client comes along and I know he’s going to love this album the way I do, well, then I sell it. So you could say I now have a transitory collection.
J.P. Can you show me an example of a really special album like that?
(Bola led me to a little, hidden-away closet.)
OK, these are some Beatles records that were made in Mexico City by an outfit called Musart during a short period of six months. They were simply labeled Beatles 1, Beatles 2, etc. They only got to five when EMI came along and said, “Stop! We have the rights for these!” So a limited number of those five Mexican Beatle albums are still floating around and in some places like Japan or England maybe, they are highly prized. It would be like finding a José José record made in China.
J.P. So if people come here to La Perla, they can end up getting a lesson in music history.
Actually, I learned a lot myself, just this way, from record stores. You would go in and talk with a guy who knew everything about everything and you’d ask him, “Hey what do you think about this band? Should I buy this record or that one?” And he would always say, “Wait a minute, man, have you heard about this other band? I bet you’d like it!”
So people come here and ask me about music, but at the same time I myself am learning more about music than ever before in my life. Even though I’m a musician, when somebody comes along and asks me a question about some band and I don’t have a clue, that customer is really opening a door, a door to a long corridor of music, and that’s beautiful.
“There is more music than life,” is a saying I like, which means that if you put all the records available in big stacks, you are never going to have enough time in one life to listen to them all, even once. Just here in this store we have maybe 10,000 records.
I’m happy that every day a kid will come along, maybe a 13-year-old and he walks in here and looks at one of these LPs and he’s amazed because it has music on both sides. And I say, “Yeah, check it out my friend, there’s a Side B too.” That’s one more youngster getting on the boat — and that’s cool.
A frequent customer of La Perla Records & Books is Clemente Orozco, grandson of Mexico’s famed muralist, José Clemente Orozco. “It’s one of my favorite places, perhaps the best in Latin America,” he told me.
So if you have an appreciation for music on vinyl or books on paper, you may agree with me that La Perla is truly a pearl without price. The telephone number is (52) 331 525 3015 and everyone there speaks English. On top of that, they actually have a couple of parking spots in front!
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, for more than 30 years and is the author of A Guide to West Mexico’s Guachimontones and Surrounding Area and co-author of Outdoors in Western Mexico. More of his writing can be found on his website.