Even on the briefest of visits to the Bolivian capital, La Paz, you can’t fail to notice the plethora of hats, specifically the good old-fashioned bowler. But unlike the black attire once worn by London’s city gents, these are brown – and worn by women.
It’s a cultural thing: the cholas who wear them do so to emphasise their heritage and reinforce how proud they are of it. Once, the cholas weren’t welcome downtown. They were refused entry to restaurants, banned from walking in Plaza Murillo in front of the Presidential Palace and harassed if they ventured into the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods.
Cholas, or cholitas to give them the diminutive form, dress in voluminous skirts, multiple layers of petticoats and crocheted shawls. The hat is an easy way of determining the wearer’s marital status: if she wears it straight, she’s married, but if it sits at an angle, she’s available. So that hat plays a critical role in the La Paz social scene.
The practice of wearing a bowler is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Most sources agree that, in the 1920s, a consignment of bowler hats was shipped to Bolivia, intended for railway workers. But someone had made a mistake with the colour or size – versions of the story disagree – and faced with a huge loss, an entrepreneur named Domingo Soligno marketed them to the indigenous Aymara women as being the height of fashion in Europe.
Some sources wrongly name the type of hat as a borsalino. In fact, Borsalino is the name of an Italian hat manufacturer that for many years supplied the cholas. It’s correctly known, therefore, as a sombrero de la chola paceña.
To wear a Borsalino comes at a price and these expensive hats are beyond the means of many. The target of thieves wishing to make an easy buck, the Borsalino brand is now largely a thing of the past in Bolivia. For more than forty years, bowlers have been made locally by the likes of Sombreros Illimani and also imported from Colombia. But even these cheap imitations have a charm about them.
I came across Libreria Gisbert quite by accident. Wandering along Calle Comercio from Plaza Murillo, a chalkboard advertising a coffee shop caught my eye. It promised the best coffee in La Paz, though as the Bolivian capital didn’t appear to have embraced coffee culture like other Latin American cities, I didn’t have high expectations. Stepping inside, up some stone steps and through a grand doorway, I saw that a small corner of a bookstore had been sectioned off. The Writer’s Coffee, as the cafe was called, exceeded expectations. A couple of smartly dressed Bolivian businessmen sipped espresso from a couple of armchairs in front of me; they didn’t talk much, killing time. At a table, a cluster of bookish Japanese tourists came and went. The rest of the tables were occupied by a mix of well off locals and visitors. The coffee wasn’t cheap here, though it was rich and smooth.
While I sat nursing a latte, I took in my surroundings. The cafe itself was artfully decorated with vintage typewriters lining alcoves built into the walls. The baristas, Japanese also, wore pork pie hats and aprons, and spoke impeccable English as well as Spanish. My eyes drifted beyond the partition walls of the cafe and I realised that this was no ordinary bookstore. Jose Gisbert learnt his trade at Libreria Arno under the supervision of a couple of Spaniards who ran the business on nearby Calle Murillo. In 1922, fifteen years later, Gisbert decided to set up on his own and the business was a success. Jose Gilbert died in 1985, but other family members stepped up to run the business, among them his daughter Carmen.
Almost a century later, the shop is still flourishing, run the old-fashioned way. Predominantly an educational bookstore supporting the local university, two of the walls were lined floor to ceiling – and what high ceilings – with carefully filed books. A ladder slid up and down via a runner in the floor, the only way to access the highest shelves. From time to time, a dapper gent, wearing a furrowed brow and a claret and grey jacket, pottered up and down, fetching books from lofty, yet not dusty, spots. I found a book on Bolivia that interested me, but there was no ticket on it. In a nod to the 21st century, Gisbert’s had computerised its stock in 2007. But this was no up to date system; a pre-Windows catalogue listed only the most basic of details. I got the impression that my gentleman assistant would have preferred a set of well-worn index cards as he looked up the price.
Buying the book turned out to be an equally convoluted process. From the desk, I was directed to a caja where a younger man was sat behind a glass screen. As if buying a ticket from an art house cinema, I bent down and told the man what I’d selected, passing through two 100 Boliviano bills and receiving a printed receipt in return. Crossing to the far side of the bookstore, where stationery supplies were displayed, my purchase was bagged, the receipt stamped and I was wished a good day. Save for the printed till receipt and plastic rather than paper bag, I could have been purchasing my book on opening day.