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Cheap bookstore in danger of closing. Lisbon's historic store launches pedestrian …

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Cheap bookstore in danger of closing. Lisbon's historic store launches pedestrian ...

Faced with an old crisis that worsened in recent weeks due to the pandemic, the historic Livraria Barata, one of the most emblematic establishments in Lisbon, with a path marked by political persecutions of the founder during the Estado Novo, is preparing to launch in June a campaign to raise donations through the Internet, the managing partner, Elsa Barata, told the Observer. Already this Friday, those responsible for the bookstore expect to meet via videoconference with the Mayor of Lisbon, Fernando Medina, and the council of Culture.

Before the coronavirus, there was already a drop in sales, in addition to financial problems with more than a decade, but it was during the last two months that things got worse. “We had 90% less revenue, we ran out of money to pay rent, water, electricity, employees and suppliers,” said Elsa Barata, the founder's daughter, this Tuesday. "It has been dramatic, we need an oxygen balloon", he stressed. This is because Barata is really in danger of closing definitively. The information has been circulating on social networks for several days and has been shared via cell phone messages.

Barata began selling to the wicket on the eve of the first presidential decree of a state of emergency, on March 18. It did not allow customers to enter, to avoid possible coronavirus contagions, following orders from the Directorate-General for Health, but answered the door, thus avoiding a total stop. “We didn't let our arms down, we worked with customers via email and social networks and we even made a protocol with CoopTáxis for home deliveries. There was an effort through the means we had, to keep the flame alive ”, reported the bookseller, who shares the management with her husband, José Rodrigues. It was not enough.

Many suppliers, that is, publishers and distributors, did not give us a moratorium and therefore broke the supply. We also sent a letter to the Presidency of the Republic at the beginning of the confinement, but I understand that at that stage the priority was health and that is why we received an answer that did not give us much hope. The pandemic was the final ax. We can either get past this phase or we can have the closure, that is clear, ”said Elsa Barata.

When the doors of the bookstores reopened on May 4, as determined by the Government, customers and friends of the house were confronted with the new reality and decided to join in an attempt to save the historic store. The “wave of solidarity”, as the businesswoman describes it, has already led to an increase in the number of clients. Since Monday, employees have returned to work eight hours a day, in an attempt not to waste the goodwill of those who travel there. “We have asked people to come and buy and if we do not have what they are looking for, they will order through us. It’s a way of ensuring that we don’t lose any customers. ”

In the first days of June, Barata plans to launch a crowdfunding campaign on the internet. "We are going to ask people for a donation, which is also an investment, because they get a credit for purchases at the bookstore," explained Elsa Barata, without saying the total amount she hopes to raise. This and other details have yet to be worked out. “All the people who are helping us with this are volunteers, they give the best of their time. We have held daily meetings at the end of the night through Zoom ”, he stressed.

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What is certain is that the fundraising campaign, if successful, can “help renew and reaffirm the Cockroach”, according to the manager. "We will have a more assertive commercial strategy and a cultural plan for the next 18 to 24 months, so that there is intense activity in the physical space and on digital platforms."

Asked if Barata applied for support of 400,000 euros from the Ministry of Culture to bookstores and independent publishers, the manager replied that she did not. It was excluded at the outset in view of the rule that the candidate bookstores in 2019 had a turnover of less than 300 thousand euros. The application deadline ended last Friday and the results should be known by the end of the month, according to the Minister of Culture, Graça Fonseca.

The company that owns the bookstore also did not have access to the simplified lay-off that the Government created nor can it apply for public support or resort to joint financing from the bank. Since 2014, it has faced a Special Revitalization Process (PER), a legal alternative to insolvency, and has struggled to cope with mandatory Social Security payments. Of the 10 employees, five have since been discharged.

Furthermore, Barata was also excluded from the RELI – Rede de Livrarias Independentes, which since early April has brought together hundreds of small and medium-sized booksellers from north to south of the country. “They didn't accept me because, since 2010, we have had a commercial partnership with the editorial group LeYa. We are an independent bookstore from large economic groups, but RELI understood that we did not fit in ”, argued Elsa Barata.

Located at 11 Avenida de Roma – once one of the capital's chic arteries – Livraria Barata was founded in 1957 by António Domingos Melfe Barata (1925-1993), father of the current manager, born in Pêro Viseu, in the municipality of Fundão . In 1960 he also became the founder and manager of Editorial Presença, according to a historical review provided by Barata. “The objective from the beginning was very clear: to sell books prohibited by the Estado Novo,” Elsa Barata told the Observer. He detailed: “Books by Mao Tsé-Tung, by Maksim Gorki, by Portuguese personalities who were not under the Salazar regime, all of this was prohibited, books were simply seized.”

António Domingos Melfe Barata opened Livraria Barata in 1957 (DR)

Senhor Barata, as he was known, was imprisoned for 20 days in the Jail of Aljube, next to the Lisbon Cathedral, following searches of the house and the shop by the PIDE, the political police. He was accused of importing banned books from France – 1964, the year after his daughter was born. “Activities against State security”, PIDE noted in the bookseller's prison biography, according to documents shared by the daughter with the Observer.

“My father had arrest records until 1972. He was never linked to the Communist Party, he was independent. Of course, he was very close to socialism, but he was never affiliated. I had very own convictions ”, explained the daughter.

Especially after the 25th of April 1974, and also in the 80s, Barata gained prominence as a cultural space and meeting point, having marked generations of Lisboners and young people who studied in the capital. It was also a time of business prosperity. It even had a network of 13 stores, including in Campo de Ourique and the Instituto Superior Técnico. There is now the mother house. "The successive economic crises, competition from online sales, especially from Amazon, and then the quasi-monopolies and booksellers' oligopolies were terrible for us," said the bookseller.

It is today one of the last independent bookstores in Portugal that are still in the hands of the founding family. Most customers live near Avenida de Roma, but there are also regulars who live in other areas of the city and even in other parts of the country. Children's books, fiction, poetry and social sciences, plus newspapers and specialized magazines, constitute one of the main sources of revenue, with school books playing an increasingly small role.

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