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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

A farewell conversation with Between the Lines’ Juanita Stein

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Courtesy Juanita Stein

After nearly four years in business, Juanita Stein’s bookstore Between the Lines has become a fixture in Mérida. 

But as all good things must end, the charming Centro store will shut its doors for good on Christmas Eve. A favorite of locals and visitors alike, the store became popular quickly but is only the end piece of Stein’s time well spent in Yucatán. “But now I’m ready for retirement!” she explains as she prepares for a new adventure in Spain. 

Born in México City during the six months her American parents were house-sitting there and returning to México to spend her teen years, Stein developed a lifelong love of the country. After the México City stint was up, the family moved to Southern California until she was 11, when they returned and spent six years in Guadalajara. She then moved to Canada, where she lived for the next 30 years, spending 10 years each in Ottawa, Vancouver, and Victoria. 

Stein worked in the travel industry for her first 12 years in Canada. She later worked as the associate publisher for Where Victoria magazine and then launched her own magazine, The Professionals.  

“I didn’t know it at the time, but there was to be another magazine in my future!” says Stein. 

Mérida residents Juanita Stein and her husband, Jan Zak, are moving to Spain and entering a new chapter in their lives. Photo: Courtesy Juanita Stein

In 1994, she met Jan Zak, who would become her husband, when she walked into his café in Victoria. “It was love at first sight for us both!” she admits.

She says about her years in Canada, “After growing up in Southern California and Guadalajara, I just never got used to the cold!” 

When Stein entered her late 40s, she and Jan wanted some adventure, and she wanted to return to the country of her birth and adolescence. Guadalajara was “a great place to be a teenager in the late 1960s.” She and Jan saved up for a couple of years to have enough to buy a house and a car and live for a year somewhere in México. 

The couple decided on Mérida as their new home because it is a big enough city that it has culture, is close to the sea, and isn’t too touristy. They’ve never regretted the move in their 21 years here. She worked as an English teacher for the first five years. She then joined Yucatán Today magazine as editorial director and stayed for 11 years. 

“I still consider them family,” she says.

Between the Lines prepared to open in early 2020, just as big challenges would strike. Photo: Courtesy Juanita Stein.

Growing up surrounded by books, Stein always knew there would be a bookstore in her future. She met the owners of Plaza Carmesí, Josefina Larraín Lagos and Salvador Reyes Ríos, in 2011 when the trio first talked about locating a bookstore there. Stein developed a business plan in 2012, which remained shelved for seven years. Then, in 2019, Larraín and Reyes renovated the building that was to eventually house Between the Lines, and Stein dusted off her carefully crafted business plan. She opened the doors to Between the Lines in early March 2020: “I had to close the shop two weeks later due to the pandemic! I switched to home delivery during the three months the store was closed,” Stein recalls. Then began the recovery period, which quickly evolved into a thriving business. 

The name of her bookstore reflects her love of books with layers that use imagery and description, prompting one to read between the lines. 

“Between the Lines has a double meaning,” Stein says. “Not just that the stories in books might have a double meaning, but the store itself has many layers…community, safe space for everyone, beautiful books, passion, emotion, and ambiance.” 

The bookstore’s tagline, “More than a bookstore,” refers to other merchandise, such as reading glasses, greeting cards, calendars, puzzles and games. She also does book delivery upon request, which I have taken advantage of. 

With the goal of “going back to the pleasure of holding a book in your hands and putting pen to paper,” Between the Lines is a local success story. Greeting cards are one of the most popular sidelines. The shop’s customer base is equal parts English-speaking residents, tourists from everywhere, including México, and Spanish-speaking locals. 

I first discovered the shop and met Stein not long after my arrival in Mérida, having seen posts in expat Facebook groups and wanting to have some books again after having to rid myself of a large old book collection left behind in the U.S. Upon entering the atmospheric shop in a gorgeous restored colonial building in Mérida’s Santa Lucía, I was hooked and became a regular. Between the Lines carries a varied selection of books and introduces readers to new authors such as Silvia Moreno-Garcia, whom I discovered there. I am now on my fifth book written by that author.

The time came for Stein’s Polish-born husband to pursue his dream of returning to Europe after 40 years. 

“I’m ready for the next chapter…retirement! But it’s bittersweet to close my bookstore and leave my beloved Mérida and México.” The couple will probably settle in the Andalucía region of Spain. “We already know the language and love the climate there.”

When the store’s closing was announced, the public response was emotional. “How will we know what to read when you close BTL in December?” one fan wrote on social media.

Reflecting on her time in Mérida, Stein said she is happy the shop has had such a positive impact on the community. When asked what she will miss most, she responded, “the friendships, the bookstore very much, and the roots I’ve made here.” She adds, “I will miss all the things that make México México.” 

Between the Lines, Calle 62 No. 450 x 51 y 53, Centro, is open until Dec. 24. Find them on Facebook and Instagram. WhatsApp: 999-242-3528. 

Claire Tyrpak
Claire Tyrpak
Claire Tyrpak retired to Mérida in 2021 after a career managing programs for nonprofits, government and a university in the United States. She has been a world traveler since the 1980s and Mexico is the fifth country in which she has lived.
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