In his late 70s, Albert Costa spent 10 days in a coma after a massive 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 bookshop would not sell its products at their market value, but at a price he personally felt they were truly worth.
Now 83, Costa trained first as an engineer and then as an anthropologist. He spent much of his life travelling around Africa and the Pacific acquiring artefacts for museums. He also became a compulsive book collector.
What he did not want was for them to end up in a flea market where “no one knows the value of what is in them and they sell them all for one euro”.
The solution was to open Espíritus del Agua (water spirits) in Gràcia, Barcelona, and stock it with his private collection of works on anthropology, art, philosophy and travel, as well as fiction.
The tiny shop, crammed from floor to ceiling with books, takes its name from an exhibition about Inuit art that Costa helped organise in 2000 for Fundació La Caixa, the cultural organisation linked to one of Spain’s largest banks.
“I sell books but it’s a business that barely pays the overheads,” he says. “I enjoy it because it’s a new career. But rather than sell them all to a library, I like people to come and look and then we can come to an agreement.”
At one point a customer enters the shop and browses for about 10 minutes, then leaves. “Has she gone?” asks Costa, who is profoundly deaf. “Oh well, she’s looked at the books. Books are for looking at too.”
Pricing, he says, is a delicate issue. “Lots of people have this idea that secondhand books have no value but I believe a secondhand book should be only a little cheaper than a new one and sometimes much more expensive. I try to arrive at a price somewhere in the middle.
“If people protest, I say, when you buy a secondhand car, you don’t know if it’s been well looked after and maintained. But you can see with a book that it’s all there, the author’s thoughts, the company that printed it.”
He holds up a book. “This is a masterpiece of anthropology; the author dedicated his life to this work, but this book was on sale for €9 (£7.55). I’d ask €15 or €20. If people don’t want to pay that, it’s all the same to me. Unless it’s a student and I know they’re going to read it, then they can have it at any price.”
Costa’s collection – and there are plenty 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 books in the house,” he says. “Of course, it hurts to sell them, but it’s a painful obligation.”