In the late 1970s, Albert Costa spent 10 days in a coma after a severe heart attack. When he woke up, one thing was clear: he would sell his life’s collection of books.
There was a catch, however. Costa’s bookstore would not sell its wares at market value, but at a price he personally felt they were really worth.
Now 83, Costa first trained as an engineer, then as an anthropologist. He spent much of his life traveling in Africa and the Pacific to acquire objects for museums. He also became a compulsive book collector.
What he didn’t want was for them to end up in a flea market where “nobody knows the value of what’s inside and they sell them all for a euro”.
The solution was to open Espíritus del Agua (Water Spirits) in Gràcia, Barcelona, and store it together with his private collection of works on anthropology, art, philosophy and travel, as well as the fiction.
The tiny shop, crammed floor-to-ceiling with books, takes its name from an exhibition of Inuit art that Costa helped organize in 2000 for Fundació La Caixa, the cultural organization linked to one of the largest banks in Spain.
“I sell books, but it’s a business that barely pays overhead,” he says. “I like it because it’s a new career. But rather than selling them all to a library, I like people to come and see and then we can work out a deal.
At one point, a customer walks into the store and browses for about 10 minutes and then leaves. “Is she gone? asks Costa, who is profoundly deaf. “Well, she looked at the books. Books are also worth looking at.
Pricing, he says, is a tricky issue. “A lot of people think used books have no value, but I think a used book should only be a little cheaper than a new one and sometimes a lot more expensive. I try to arrive at a price somewhere in the middle.
“If people protest, I say, when you buy a used car, you don’t know if it has been well maintained. But you can see with a book that it’s all there, the thoughts of the author, the company that printed it.
He is holding a book. “It’s a masterpiece of anthropology; the author has dedicated his life to this work, but this book was on sale for €9 (£7.55). I would ask €15 or €20. If people don’t want to pay that, I don’t care. Unless it’s a student and I know they’re going to read it, they can have it at any cost.
Costa’s collection — and there are many more books at home, he says — represents a lifetime of travel and curiosity and must be hard to part with.
“I know I can’t leave my son with 10,000 pounds at home,” he says. “Of course it hurts to sell them, but it’s a painful obligation.”