When Grant Cogswell moved to Mexico City seven years ago he found an urban center with everything he needed except a book store with lots of literary works in English.
He remedied that situation five years ago when he opened Under the Volcano Books, a cozy, used book store on the second floor of Calle Celaya 25 in the Condesa neighborhood.
“There was nothing like it here, a kind of safety deposit box of literary culture,” the U.S. expatriate said during a recent interview at his business. “There’s a hunger for it. People are always thanking me for the store.”
Cogswell named his store after the 1930s Malcolm Lowry novel “Under the Volcano,” the story of an alcoholic British consul.
“I used to think it was the greatest book in English,” he said. “I hadn’t read George Eliot yet. Everyone should read her after 25.”
Cogswell’s current favorite literary novels are Eliot’s “Middlemarch” and “Daniel Deronda.”
“I am kind of a native expatriate. That is how I grew up,” he said.
Cogswell, 48, was raised in Europe, mostly in England, Spain and France. His father Guy had a day job as a technician fixing laser navigation systems for a defense contractor. However, later in life, Cogswell learned that his father, who died in 1987, was a spy for the C.I.A. Cogswell came by that knowledge 20 years after his father’s death when he met with his estranged mother.
An English major with a degree from the University of Virginia, Cogswell did stints in such workaday occupations as cab driver, security guard and pizza chief.
In the years since, he has traveled and written extensively. He worked for “The Stranger,” an alternative weekly in Seattle for 10 years, writing about such topics as music, Mexican travel, books and politics. He has also written screenplays and a book of poetry.
Cogswell first visited Mexico City in 2005 as a tourist, falling in love with Mexico City.
“The people are the friendliest, the funniest, the most engaging in the world, I think,” he said. “I love the street life and the street food.”
The pleasant climate and walkable neighborhoods are also among Mexico City’s pluses, according to Cogswell.
His first two years in Mexico City, Cogswell taught English until he opened his book store at the end of Cerrada Chiapas in the Roma Norte neighborhood. While attending a poetry night at the American Legion on the first floor of Calle Celaya 25, Cogswell learned about an auxiliary book store on the second floor that needed help. He soon moved his business into that space.
Cogswell described his store’s relationship with the American Legion as “symbiotic.”
Two of his friends took over the bar and the two entities have been linked ever since.
Cogswell estimates he has about 5,000 titles in the store, with 60 percent to 70 percent of the books being novels. He also offers books of essays, criticism, philosophy, new and old world history, and poetry, as well as books about Mexico.
Currently, Cogswell is buying books from libraries in the San Francisco Bay area. He also buys some from people who come to the store, paying in cash or in store credit. He likes to stick close to literary classics.
“Grant’s taste I consider near to my own taste,” 59-year-old Claudio Isaac of Polanco said while browsing the shelves. “I’m quite an anglophile and a francophile.”
A film maker, writer and painter, Isaac has read in English since early childhood and visits Under the Volcano Books whenever he is in the neighborhood. On his most recent trip, he bought a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”
Cogswell estimates about 70 percent of his customers are Mexican.
Under the Volcano Books is open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It is located at Calle Celaya 25, Condesa. As the store will be closed temporarily while a public works project takes place along the street, customers are well advised to check underthevolcanobooks.com and the store’s Facebook page to get the most current information about its hours.