Mexican ‘library mouse’ wins Bancroft prize for book collecting

While some dream of having a house with a library, Luciano Concheiro San Vicente’s dreams run in the other direction. He yearns for a library he can call home.

Luciano Concheiro San Vicente

Bibliophile Luciano Concheiro San Vicente

He needs the shelf space. Back in Mexico City, Concheiro’s personal library, on the theme of Mexican identity, has grown to more than 5,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals, stored in boxes not just in his living room but the kitchen and even the bathrooms. “Friends think I’m crazy,” he says. “I prefer to buy a book rather than clothes.”

The 20-year-old bibliophile is the newest winner of the Hill-Shumate Book Collecting Prize, an annual Bancroft Library award whose purpose is to encourage undergrads to build their own libraries and “read for pleasure and education.”

It was the Bancroft’s important collection of materials on Mexico that prompted Concheiro, a history major at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), to come to Berkeley as an exchange student. Aided by a small grant from the history department, he spent spring semester doing research for his thesis (on “the utility of history”) under the guidance of history professor Martin Jay. “All my classes were great — the intellectual part was amazing,” he says of his time in Berkeley’s classrooms and archives.

His parents’ early and solemn promise — to keep him in “food and books” — helped instill a sense that reading was essential to life itself, and he began purchasing books as “a little, little kid,” he recalls. By high school Concheira had refined his criteria, scouring bookshops large and small for rare books and limited editions, which remain a focus today. At times, he says with mixed feelings, he also uses the Internet.

rare copy of calendar distributed by government

A rare copy of a free calendar distributed by the Mexican government in the early 20th century

“Sometimes you find a signed edition that you won’t see again in all your life,” he says of the hunt for rare books. “If you don’t buy it that moment, it’s lost forever.”

Concheira’s library mirrors his passionate interest in his country’s history and what it means to “be Mexican” — something he calls “a construction,” created largely by the nation’s elite as the modern Mexican state developed. “We weren’t born as Mexicans,” he says. “That’s a cultural issue added to our soul.”

His collection includes México a través de los siglos (“Mexico through the centuries”), the first monumental history of Mexico, books by foreigners on Mexico and the “Mexican being,” reading books for rural schoolchildren distributed by the Mexican government and early-20th-century government-produced tourists brochures, describing the nation’s beaches and a “tropical, happy people.”

It also features works on Mexican cuisine — such as a copy of the first Mexican cookbook, El Cocinero Mexicano (“the Mexican chef”), published in 1831, 10 years after Mexican independence. The volume includes a recipe of a mole that “takes two days to make because it’s super-complicated, with 50 different ingredients,” Concheira says. Though in poor condition, “I like to think it was used in a kitchen of the 19th century,” he adds.

And that’s just for starters.

Before returning to Mexico last Saturday, the “ratón de biblioteca” (“library mouse”), as friends call him, made a final trip into San Francisco — carrying his $600 in prize money and, needless to add, the address of a bookseller.