by David Everett & Charles Dews
Mexico City is not only the political and cultural capital of the nation, it is one of the most important mercantile cities in the hemisphere. The Centro Histórico, what we chilangos call "downtown," is the center of it all.
When we are downtown we are nearly always in a hurry, just like everyone else. So one day we metroed to the Zöcalo with the sole purpose of shop snooping. Once above ground, we checked out the day's protesters and headed toward Calle Tacuba.
All along that bustling thoroughfare are bouquets of knock-off perfumeries, where you can titillate your olfactory senses for a fraction of the price in Palacio de Hierro. Oddly, like so many other shops in our town, these gleaming nosegays seem to congregate, so that if you're Mexico City savvy, Calle Tacuba is where you go for your Chanel or Cigar (yes, Cigar's a scent, pour gentilhommes).
Calle Donceles, one block north, is where you go for books. The most impressive book purveyor on the street is Bibliofilia at number 78-2. The first title that caught our attention was William H. Prescott's The Reign of Philip the Second, an 1874 edition from George Routledge and Sons, London. The store also carries volumes by the famous Madrid publisher Aguilar, such as the complete works of just about any major writer in the world of literature--all in Spanish.
There are books that look old, but are relatively new, for example Memorias de un viejo palacio, Carlos Sánchez-Navarro y Peón's book about the Palace of the Counts of San Mateo de ValparaÌso. It is a 1950 edition with exquisite typography and lovely color woodblock illustrations. Also Salvador Novo's Cocina Mexicana--História Gastronómica de la Ciudad de México, a beautiful 1976 facsimile of the 1883 edition.
If you love old books, this is the place to spend a few happy hours. In just minutes, we discovered Introducción a la vida devota de San Francisco de Sales printed in Madrid in 1771 and a 1734 edition of La devoción al sagrado corazón de Jesús from Pamplona.
Bibliofilia also carries old sheet music. We found 1950 copies of Hoffman, Merrill, and Watts's "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd ve Baked a Cake" and "Suerte Loca," by Agustín Lara. And old magazines like Le Sport Universal IllustrÈfrom 1910 or Blanco y Negro from 1935. This is the only place I have ever seen a wood-made-to-look-like-leather complete set of the old Artes de Mexico, from volume 1 to volume 202.
A little further down Donceles at number 57 we found Arce Brothers, Inc., home of photography in Mexico City. I found the very first camera I ever snapped a fuzzy photo through-- a black, gray, and boxy Brownie Fiesta. David found his first, also a Kodak box camera, the SLK 20 Brownie E. Arce Brothers sells antique cameras and up-to-the-minute ones and all their attachments. They even have an elegant old Arriflex movie camera and a pair of Videlux wide-angle lens cameras, to say nothing of cameras by Rollei, Hasselblad (the silver-trimmed version), Leica, Mamiya, Nikon, and several beautiful and classic view cameras.
On the more raffish Calle República de Cuba, we found Distribuidora Sinfonolandia at number 39. This shop sells music machines, what we used to call jukeboxes, or nickelodeons back when we could buy a song for a nickel. They sell Wurlitzers, Seebergs, and Rock-Olas, both the new glittery, chrome kind that play Ricky Martin CDs, and beautifully restored antiques from the eras of the 78s, 45s, and LPs. Our favorites were the old Wurlitzers with their glowing plastic fenders in soft neon colors, some with bubbles running up them. There were also modern copies of the old styles, fitted to play CDs. For about $50,000 pesos we could have had an antique Wurlitzer for our very own sala.
Finally, all snooped out, we popped into the Opera Bar for lunch. Open since 1870, this bar and restaurant is pure Paris Opera House, offering a decor of gilded ornate arches, dark carved wood, red flocked wallpaper, gleaming mirrors, and plush red velvet upholstery. Former president Porfirio Díaz and his chic wife Carmen Rubio and that era's in-crowd came to sip a copita of wine before retiring in those days.
Any of today's waiters can point up at a circular hole and tell you of the time in 1916 when Pancho Villa rode into the Opera Bar on horseback and fired his pistol at the ceiling. However, none of them can tell you what he got served, or even if he got served. But if either of us had been the maitre d on duty that day, Sr. Villa and his horse could have sat anywhere they pleased and sampled everything on the menu-- with our compliments.