Loreto, the indigenous population used to say, is where the mountains come to swim, and for a contemporary traveler, the attractions are mostly maritime: sport fishing in the sparkling waters, wintering whales nursing their calves, sea lions living the life of Riley. But the portal of La Misión Nuestra Señora de Loreto hints at a hallowed history. CABEZA Y MADRE DE LAS MISIONES/DE BAJA Y ALTA CALIFORNIA, the inscription reads: Head and Mother of the Missions/Of Lower and Upper California. Founded in 1697, Loreto was the first European settlement in the Californias, remaining a capital for 132 years (until 1775 of all California, then only of Baja). The Jesuits and later the Franciscans fanned out from here, traveling north, well beyond what is now the American border, establishing their chain of historic missions. The population today is estimated at 10,000. The principal image on the exhaustive guidebook to the town (from Best Guides, Seattle) is of popsicles at La Michoacana, a temple of frozen treats that stocks dozens of flavors, drawing a larger and more faithful flock than the church.
"This would be the place to pick up your copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall," I jested as we strolled along Paseo Hidalgo, hot and dusty in the blistering September sun. My wife and I were passing a single-story storefront emblazoned "Baja Books" in giant letters, heading for the boardwalk. The roof was covered in woven palm leaves. Through the glass, we saw stacks of curling paperbacks and scattered wicker furniture, but the shop was closed, so we ambled on to the shore.
A few days later, we walk in, grateful not just for the shade but also for the livable temperature. The owner Alberto Perez, known as Beto, tells me his trick: splash a bucket of water on the concrete floor. Looking around, I see John Steinbeck's Log from the Sea of Cortez, bolts of fabric, a rack with what must be 300 different colors of Swedish thread (at $2 per spool too expensive for the local market). And a $60 treasure: Harry W. Crosby's The Cave Paintings of Baja California: Discovering the Great Murals of an Unknown People. "The Indians say the cave paintings aren't by their ancestors," Beto's wife Jeannine, a retired special-ed teacher, explains. "They say they're by a race of giants." In photographs, the paintings rival the marvels of Altamira and Lascaux, but to reach them, you must cross wide stretches of desert, braving sunstroke and rattlesnakes. Maybe next year.
Going on four years ago, Beto and Jeannine rolled into Loreto for a visit and bought property the next day. They came down from Los Lunas, New Mexico, where Beto ran a used-book and fabric shop. Abandoning tens of thousands of books, he brought along just one pick-up load of stock to start the business down in Mexico. "Our kids think we're totally loco for moving down here," says Beto (between them, they have 13). "Our grandkids think we're the coolest."
They received a warm welcome. "The poorest came with a shovel to help us dig," says Jeannine, "or brought us a loaf of fresh bread. And we made lots of kooky friends. People who come to live in Loreto aren't usual people." These days, Baja Books slots in somewhere between a drop-in center and a crisis shelter. "We get eco-tourists here, and people who come for the cave paintings," says Jeannine. "Sometimes they get sick or scared. Sometimes the ATM doesn't work." She serves coffee, but she doesn't charge for it. She doesn't to compete with the locals.
Early their first Christmas morning, when Jeannine was making cinnamon rolls, tourists started dropping in, and by 9:30 a.m., there were 40 people in the shop. "New Year's Day we did almost as well," says Jeannine. "Nothing else was open. There was a woman from South Africa. There were people from the Far East. We'll never see them again. But everyone would tell us their whole life story, and they were interesting stories. Maybe if I'd known we'd have so much fun with a bookstore, I wouldn't have taught all these years." Scanning the guest book, I find names from Italy, Germany, Russia, Scandinavia… The couple that just walked are speaking Swiss German.
"Our best-selling book is Sea of Cortez: A Cruiser's Guidebook, by Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer," Jeannine says, holding up a self-published title. "We've sold over 150 copies of that, at $50 each. New books are a new thing for us." As for Gibbon, they're fresh out, but the pile of second-hand classics is intriguing. Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall is in the stack of classics, though, along with King Lear, Descartes, Red Badge of Courage and lots more. "Backpackers and kayakers buy classics. They want something thin, easy to carry. Our worst-selling author? Danielle Steele. You want 100 copies for $10? Take 'em away!"