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Mayor of Alpujarra de la Sierra José Antonio Gómez inside the library-phone booth. R. C.
The retired doctor in Spain who has breathed new life into old telephone boxes as book exchanges
Literature

The retired doctor in Spain who has breathed new life into old telephone boxes as book exchanges

Mayor José Antonio Gómez has ordered 12 more disused kiosks from Telefónica as the first one, where locals could leave one book and pick up another, has been so popular

José Antonio Guerrero

Alpujarra de la Sierra

Friday, 3 May 2024, 05:10

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About a year and a half ago, José Antonio Gómez, mayor of Alpujarra de la Sierra, on the southern side of the Sierra Nevada in Andalucía's Granada province, came up with the idea of transforming the only disused telephone box left in the village into a kind of mini public library where locals could leave one book and pick up another, with the idea of encouraging reading and the exchange of novels, short stories and poems.

A retired rural doctor, 67-year-old José Antonio's recipe for bringing culture to his former patients has worked "very well". Given the success of the initiative, he wants to ask Telefónica for a dozen more old kiosks and extend the project to other places in the municipality which is home to 900 inhabitants spread over Mecina Bombarón, Yegen, El Golco, and Montenegro, where just six people live.

Of the 42,000 phone booths counted in Spain in 1990, only three ended up in Alpujarra de la Sierra, of which just one has survived; the current one in the town hall square of Mecina Bombarón, now reconverted into a literary space with shelves and around 30 books.

"As nobody told us to take it away, we started to use it as a literary exchange point. You can see that they have spared its life", joked the mayor, who emphasised how well cared for the small glass enclosure is and how respectful the residents are with the books they borrow.

"They are in perfect condition. There is a very nice movement around the books and they are being encouraged to read more", said the mayor, who points out that the works of the Granada writer and poet Federico García Lorca are proving to be the most popular.

The best medicine

Before working as a doctor for four decades - the last 27 years in the Alpujarra villages - Gómez worked as a typographer, a trade in which he cultivated his love of literature; a medicine he has prescribed all his life, including the five terms he has been mayor of Alpujarra de la Sierra, perched at an altitude of 1,200 metres and surrounded by fresh water running through springs, irrigation channels, fountains and old washing places. "Books, culture and nature are not a bad combination," said the mayor, who wants Alpujarra de la Sierra to be known as 'El Pueblo Libro' (the book town).

A child reads a book after picking it up from the kiosk.
A child reads a book after picking it up from the kiosk. José Antonio Gómez

There is no shortage of literary inspiration in the area: a very young Gerald Brenan lived in Yegen around a century ago from where he wrote about the traditions of the Alpujarra in his book South of Granada. His illustrious friends from the Bloomsbury circle, Virginia Woolf, Dora Carrington, Lytton Strachey and the philosopher Bertrand Russell all came to visit him there.

In fact, the inn to which Brenan moved on his arrival in Yegen in 1920 has been preserved in its original state. "We have it as Brenan space and it would be a good place to put another cabin," says Gómez.

In addition, the municipal library has received a donation of eight thousand books from the widow of Pío Navarro, grandson of Niceto Alcalá Zamora, author of an anthropological study of Mecina Bombarón (very much in the humanist vein of Al Sur de Granada) which led him to spend several months in the village and become fond of its people.

On that basis, the mayor wants to set up a reading club and continue to take steps to ensure that the residents of the Alpujarra de la Sierra continue this great literary tradition.

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