“I always imagined that Paradise would be some kind of library.” This quote by Jorge Luis Borges has been deeply rooted in the life of José Alberto Gutiérrez, who for over 20 years has devoted his life to promoting literacy by giving away books to anyone who wants to read. Known as El Señor de los Libros (The Book Man), Don José rescued books from the dumpster in Bogota, Colombia, restored them and built a library inside his home where children and adults from his neighbourhood and beyond could access them.
To celebrate World Book Lovers Day (August 9), we had the pleasure of interviewing Don José – the ultimate book lover – and we are thrilled to bring you his story.
From Bedtime Stories to Theology
Don José’s love for books began at a very early age. He grew up listening to his father recite Julio Flores’ poetry, and every night at bedtime his mother would read him stories. It was she who taught him how to read and to cherish books. “I used to live in a very humble home,” says Don José over the phone. “But my mother lit up that house with everything she read to us, all the stories she told us. I was very young but quickly realized that books and reading were very important. My mom taught me to read and I just kept on reading.”
Don José was not able to complete his education past grade 3 in elementary school as he had to start working very young, and it was not until 2019, at age 56, that he got his high school diploma. Yet not being able to go to school didn’t stop young José from pursuing his love for books, and he would take advantage of any opportunity to read. “One day my father took me to take care of a house from a wealthy family and that house was filled with books: children’s books, beautifully bound, hundreds of them,” he recalls. “I went there twice and read them all. That was what I call my doctorate in reading. From then on, I started reading about theology, psychology, anthropology. I was on a constant search, I don’t know what I was looking for, but I was reading everything, avidly. I read Othello and kept on reading and I fell in love. I fell in love with reading.” He would spend whatever money he came across buying used books at the flea market, even used books in foreign languages that he could not understand but whose covers drew him in. “It was their spirit that fascinated me,” he says fondly.
After he got married, around 1997 Don José started a job that involved daily trips to the dumpster where he used to find discarded books. “On my first trip I found a box with a copy of Anna Karenina, and that’s where I discovered Leo Tolstoy,” he says. “I didn’t know who he was. I just saw the book and I thought it was a beautiful edition, so I took it with me and began reading it. And I fell in love with Tolstoy. He is now one of my favourite writers. His short story Father Sergius is the best book I’ve ever read.”
The Birth of a Magical Place
Don José began bringing discarded books home where his wife Luz Mary, a skilled seamstress, would help mend them and care for them. “Books are worth money but also they are knowledge,” says Don José. “They are the best human invention ever.” Soon, the second floor of his home was filled with rescued books. The ladies who’d visit Luz Mary to have a dress made noticed the books and asked if they could borrow them for their kids’ homework. This was the pre-internet era and public libraries were scarce in Colombia, especially in the low-income neighbourhood in Bogota where the Gutiérrez family lived. There was only one public library, and patrons were not allowed to take the books home.
And so in 2000, Don José and Luz Mary transformed their 2-story home into a library where people from the neighbourhood and nearby marginalized areas could visit. “It was beautiful,” says Don José proudly. “It was filled with books and children. People from all over came to visit and to help us. It became a magical place. At the entrance, above the door we painted Borges’ quote: “I always imagined that Paradise would be some kind of library.”
What started as a personal project soon became a family endeavour. Don José, Luz Mary and their children all worked hard on transforming that impromptu library into a culture hub where book clubs, workshops, musical soirees and other cultural activities took place, with Luz Mary at the helm and always ready to lend a hand with research for a homework project or to provide life advice. Today, Don José can even proudly say that all of those children who visited the library have now gotten their university degree. “It made a difference in our community. We were the only library in the world that instead of borrowing a book, people could keep it. It was a gift for them, which made it even more special.”
From there, Don José’s phone never stopped ringing, whether it was a phone call to schedule a book donation drop-off or to ask for an interview. The library’s reach also grew. They started the foundation La Fuerza de Las Palabras (The Power of Words) that delivers books outside Bogota, reaching marginalized communities all over Colombia. A couple of years ago, Nissan lent them a small van in which the foundation delivered books around the country – from big cities to small villages. Don José has personally delivered to more than 300 locations all over Colombia, including conflict zones where they delivered 2.5 tons of books to guerrilla members and military alike. “To me,” says Don José, “our project has been a symbol of hope. We bring books to everybody.”
La Fuerza de Las Palabras Today
As with many organizations, the pandemic brought a few challenges to La Fuerza de Las Palabras. They had to return the borrowed van, and Don José was laid off from his day job and was not rehired because of his age (58 years old). Always an optimist, Don José is committed to keeping his literacy project going and strives to continue delivering books all over Colombia. An even bigger dream is to find a place to house the rare and antique books he has found over the years. “My dream is to build a museum to show those antique books to anybody who is interested,” he says. He’s already received a donation of a 300 sq m lot in Bogota where he dreams of building the library and a cultural hub. He’s also working hard on a fundraiser to buy a used truck to continue travelling across the country promoting literacy, delivering books and holding workshops on environmentalism and entrepreneurship.
Don José and Luz Mary’s legacy has touched thousands of lives, even transcending borders. Last May, The New School in New York City awarded them an Honoris Causa degree for their noteworthy literacy activism over the past 20 years. But their work is not done yet, as Don José still has many plans to continue their legacy “until it is my time to leave this planet,” he says laughing.