No single entry can do more than begin to capture the liveliness, the enthusiasm, the love of life that characterized Alfredo Montalvo Saenz. Exchanges on the listserv once people learned of his passing have employed a host of descriptions; they speak of his warmth, magnetism, joy, generosity, indomitable spirit. They describe him as a hard worker, dreamer, lover of books and libraries — inolvidable. All have spoken in varied ways of “the remarkable legacy he has left in our hearts, minds and bookshelves.”
Born in the aftermath of the catastrophic Chaco War and witness to the Revolution of 1952, Alfredo experienced turmoil and unpredictability from an early age — just the right background for the irrepressibly optimistic, charismatic, generous person we have known. It is so hard to accept that he is gone.
After completing his basic schooling in Cochabamba, Alfredo came to the United States for college and graduate school. He earned his Bachelor of Arts (in history) at Kentucky Wesleyan College, mastering English and surviving away from the family and the Bolivian cuisine he loved. Books were already becoming central to his life and he next earned a Master of Arts in Library Science at George Peabody College (now part of Vanderbilt). A year later, he entered the University of Florida to study linguistics. It proved to be a fateful choice. There he met Irene Zimmerman, and she approached with the idea that he might think of setting up a small business to supply Bolivian books to several North American libraries. Obviously he found the idea tempting, so tempting that the pursuit of linguistics study would end after a single year. During that year, though, Alfredo added a passable knowledge of French and German to his existing mastery of English and decided to put his language skills to practical use with a fast-paced trip through Europe. Along with a group of young women, one an Irish lass with particular charms, he toured the continent in a Volkswagen bus, accessorized with a keg of wine mounted on the roof and a plastic tube threaded into the passenger compartment. It has been said he also studied in Germany that year and may even have worked as an orderly in Switzerland — but how many of the tales of the many sides of Alfredo are fully accurate we are unlikely ever to know.
The European jaunt over, Alfredo seized on Irene Zimmerman’s idea, and began building the business that would occupy so much of his life. He styled his firm first as Editorial Inca, offering his stock — mostly from Bolivia — to library customers through SALALM. It was a selection he acquired working almost as a plasita in reverse, going door to door buying not just books, but also periodicals and pamphlets, the sorts of materials he hoped is growing list of customers would find valuable. Over time, his purview expanded to include all the Andean countries — Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela — operating as Libros Andinos.
In recent years Libros Andinos has relied on agents living in each region–these are the helpful folk who acquire our purchases at FILBO. However, Alfredo has not always operated in such an orthodox manner. In 1985 a member of SALALM ran across him in the old city of Quito at the end of a two-week buying tour. Alfredo’s room was filled with books, so many that his landlord had ordered him not to stack them in the middle for fear of collapsing the floorboards. In addition to the books (and a single bed) the room had a worktable and two young women furiously typing away. They proved to be Colombian secretaries on holiday. Somehow Alfredo had cajoled them into typing invoices for shipments to the United States — and even helping him to wrap the parcels. His comment? They were “bored with Quito.” At one time or another, he also enlisted the members of his deeply loved family into his project, from microfilming to packing, to helping find just the right book for one of us. We know their loss is even deeper than ours.
In 2000 Alfredo took on a challenging (and at times risky) venture, microfilming newspapers, first for the Library of Congress and subsequently for members of the Latin American Research Resources Project. He was also willing to engage in the labor intensive acquisition of gray materials for research libraries. Princeton University’s Digital Archive of Latin American and Caribbean Ephemera and the Alfredo Montalvo Bolivian Digital Pamphlets Collection, mounted at Cornell, owe many of their images to Alfredo’s collecting. Alfredo would never question the judgment of his clients as they made suggestions, but from time to time many of us would note that he had added (often at no charge) items that we would recognize as both timely and of real potential value to scholarship — he cared for our collections.
His interest in scholarship was coupled with a strong sense of loyalty to the people of his country. In Cochabamba Alfredo lived on a four-hectare compound in the Frutillar district, on the northern outskirts of the city. Here he built Biblioteca Inca, which became the second largest library in Bolivia, a pair of book depósitos, a dormitory, and an apartment building. Over the years Alfredo projected a variety of uses for his property, and while they never came to full fruition, he never ceased his efforts to make the library and living spaces a venue for research. A Bolivian student, much impressed, composed a report on the compound: “Frutillar: la Biblioteca Inca entre la naturaleza y los libros.” In that report, the writer introduces Alfredo with yet another descriptor: “personaje de leyenda.”
That sounds about right.
By David Block and Paula Covington