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Chilling mystery: Why don't Mexicans read books?

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Cristina Woolrich looks across the crowded cafe to the small bookshop she runs, and sighs. "We have the best poetry section in town and we're going to get rid of it," she says. "We're going to have to eliminate almost everything if we want to survive."

For the past decade, The Pegaso bookstore, a cozy shrine to the printed word, has offered browsers free coffee, overstuffed leather sofas, and a wide-ranging literary selection. But now it's scaling back, ditching poetry and history, and keeping the few things that still sell - some novels and glossy art books. Pegaso, like many other Mexican bookstores, is on the verge of succumbing to a complicated crisis that threatens Mexico's book industry - one Ms. Woolrich says boils down to this: "Mexicans aren't reading."

Competitive pressures in a country where 3,000 copies sold makes a bestseller have pushed 4 out of every 10 bookstores in Mexico out of business over the past 10 years, according to the Mexican Booksellers Association.

Meanwhile, from 2001 to 2004, roughly 10 percent of all publishers have shut down. And despite myriad efforts to encourage reading and thus increase book buying, the crisis shows no sign of abating.

Now, the desperate publishing industry has taken matters into its own hands. In the past month, a consortium of publishers, distributors, and bookstores has started a system of fixed prices. It's a radical - and possibly illegal - measure they hope will resuscitate the industry and transform Mexico into a nation of book lovers.

"The fundamental problem is that there are few readers," says Jose Angel Quintanilla, president of the National Chamber of the Mexican Publishing Industry, which is holding meetings between publishers and booksellers to establish price controls. By boosting the number of bookstores and titles published, they aim to lower prices and increase reading. "There's no single thing that can instill this culture in Mexico. But a fixed price can help."

Despite having three times the population of Argentina, Mexico produces about 2,000 fewer titles each year. There are roughly 500 bookstores in Mexico, which translates into one for every 200,000 Mexicans, compared to a ratio of one to 35,000 in the US and one to 12,000 in Spain, according to the Mexican Booksellers Association. A recent UNESCO study revealed that Mexicans read on average just over two books per year, while Swedes finish that many every month.

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