The Most Considerable of Them All:

Rey Romero, Borrow’s Bookseller in Santiago de Compostela.
By Peter Missler
[This article was first published in the George Borrow Bulletin, n° 16 (1998), p. 32-45.]

Taking pride in a picturesque chapter of their history, Spanish and Gallegan scholars have, over the last 80 years, investigated many people and places that play a role in the Galician chapters of Borrow’s Bible in Spain (chapters 25 to 31). The best result to come out of these efforts is easily Alvaro de las Casas’ speech at the opening of the 1935 Noya schoolyear, a thoroughly researched article in which the author describes the places Borrow visited, the people he met and the officials he dealt with during his famous trip to Cape Finisterra (1) . Most importantly, De las Casas went out of his way to milk the septuagenarian descendants of Antonio de la Trava for their memories of the man we all know as the Valiente de Finisterra, something which has preserved for us some facts and anecdotes which would otherwise have been lost forever. Other efforts yielded results which were somewhat less spectacular but not less dedicated. There were, for instance, the three articles in the Voz de Galicia of 1924, where various authors traced the identities of the officials Borrow dealt with on the Galician west coast; an article by Fernandez de la Vega which teaches us that Borrow’s bookseller contact in Lugo was one Pedro Pujol Macia, who had his bookshop in the Plaza Maior; and a text for tourists where we learn that the coachman who drove Borrow from Coruña to Santiago supposedly was called Pedro el Gordo, i.e. “Fat Pete” (2)!

With so much attention spent on such secondary characters, one is surprised to see that ‘the most considerable of them all’, Rey Romero, the bookseller of Santiago, has received none. The neglect is not due to any lack of respect or a lack of sources. On the contrary: Rey Romero is still locally known among the lettered of Santiago today, and just about all the material one may expect lies waiting in the local archives. Yet for all his fame and all the ripe fruits ready for plucking, not even specialized books on the printed word teach us anything we did not already know from Borrow himself, and something so basic as his first name gets mentioned nowhere! An article on this central character is therefore long overdue.

Our bookseller’s full name - to get that one straight once and for all - was Francisco Jorge Angel Rey Romero. He was born on the 23rd of April 1775 as the second son of Cayetano Rey do Couto and Maria Romero Reira, hence the last name ‘Rey Romero’ which he and his descendants were proud to use in full, and rather against custom, throughout their lives (3). Cayetano and Maria were a highly devout, very wealthy and impressively fertile couple. Between the years 1773 and 1793 they had 12 children (although only half of those reached adulthood), and it is telling for their devotion that they destined the oldest of them, Buenaventura (b. 1773) for the church (4). Cayetano was a merchant in fancy textile, as we learn from the endless list of silks, brocades and linen in the inventory to his last will, and he was obviously doing well for himself. Somewhere between 1790 and 1792 he moved the family from the parish of Santa Maria, in a good enough neighbourhood already, to the house in the Azabacheria (5) where Rey Romero’s bookshop would later be. At the end of his life, his patrimony amounted to no less than 500,000 reales, a considerable fortune (6), and both he (in 1814), as well as his wife (in 1820), could afford to have themselves buried - exceptionally - inside the church of Santo Domingo, with a sumptuous funeral involving a small battalion of priests and a representation of all four orders of Santiago. On top of that, Maria had 400 masses said for the benefit of her soul and gave ample alms to the inmates of the poorhouse and the prison.

It may surprise Borrovians to hear that Rey Romero became a bookseller more by accident than by vocation. His brother Pedro Angel (b. 1782), a young man of great initiative and liberal politics, first set himself up as a bookseller in the early 1800s. He also bought himself a printing press and was the first to apply for a license to bring out a newspaper, the Diario de Santiago in 1808, which was granted under strict conditions of censorship, in exchange for a monthly contribution of 1,000 reales to the common cause against the French invaders (7).

At this time Francisco was absent from the town. We see him once, in 1792, as he stands godfather to his sister Lucia, but already in 1795 he disappears from the parroquial record of his family(8). Thanks to Cayetano’s testament, which narrates the episode, we know that Francisco had gone to Madrid. I frankly have no clue at all what he was doing there. Cayetano merely tells how he forwarded Francisco 6,000 reales to set himself up and that his stay in the capital provided the young men with useful friends for his later bookselling trade. We do know, however, that Francisco got married there to a girl called Juliana Alcocer Pampliega, from Burgos. They had one son, Juan Nepomuceno, who was born around 1810, but Juliana died soon after, perhaps in childbirth, and left Francisco a widower.

Back in Santiago things went no better. In 1805 Francisco’s youngest brother Vicente died at the tender age of 12; his brother Lorenzo, drafted for the army, disappeared without a trace in the siege of Ciudad Real of 1810 (9); finally, Pedro died early in 1813, leaving his parents with only two unmarried daughters and an oldest son who was a priest. It was time for Francisco, all at once the prodigal and the secular son, to return home and head the family.

With his wife dead and the Peninsular war raging all around, he was ready for it; and his parents received him with open arms. Together with young Juan, he moved in with them, at first helping out in the textile-business, but - as Cayetano tells it - Francisco’s eyes soon fell on the stock of books that Pedro had left behind and he decided to become a bookseller as well. Cayetano, eager to make him happy, obliged. Not only did he lend Francisco another 7,000 reales interest-free, and let him have the whole stock of leftover books, but he also bought a him house in the Plaza Quintana dos Mortos (no 1), in the very heart of town, to set up shop (10). Francisco moved Pedro’s old printing press there (it seems to have been operated by Buenaventura and their sister Maria do Socorro), ordered a fresh stock of books from Madrid, and thus “Borrow’s bookshop” in Santiago was born in November of 1813.

Late June of the following year, Cayetano died. It took the experts 7 full months to make the complete inventory of his possessions (it runs no less than 28 pages over 500 entrees, from houses to individual chandeleers!). On the 14th of January of 1815, the final division was made. Francisco and Buenaventura received quite small sums; a mere 32,000 reales, after subtraction of their mother’s share (she kept the Azabacheria house and the textile business) and the dowries for their two sisters. That last money was at least well-spend, for both women married soon after, Maria on the day after the devision of the inheritance (!) to a former soldier called Jose Capriles (11), and Lucia in December 1816 to José Pou, one of the main merchants of the town, a future alderman in the 1830s, and - interesting from a point of view of Rey Romero’s remarks upon the subject in The Bible in Spain - a descendant of one of those rich Catalan factory-owners of the Gallegan coast. Buenaventura, for his part, left for Madrid in December 1814, where he would become chaplain of the Hospital General (it is telling for Francisco’s honesty that his older brother, before leaving, empowered him to represent his interests in the devision of Cayetano’s inheritance, although Francisco himself was of course an interested party!)

Francisco also remarried, to a girl from Peñafiel in Castille called Ramona Perez Estevan. She was some 20 years younger than he, her parents had died and she was living at the time in the house of the Marques of Camarasa. The couple were married by the Marques’s personal priest in the church of San Miguel dos Agros on the 21st of December 1815 (12). Their first child, Dionisio Maria, was born on October 9th 1816, only 9 months and 19 days later; which shows that Francisco, at age 40, was as efficient in these matters as his father had been. Four more children were to follow: Lucia Josefa (1817), Francisco Juan (1820) , Ramon Candido (1821) (13), and Dionisio Aeropagita (1824). Their halfbrother Juan stood godfather to all except the first, and the middle three were born in the Quintana house, where Francisco and Ramona had temporarily gone to live. By 1824 they had moved back to the house in the Azabacheria, which his mother Maria had left them, and where they were to live and run the bookshop for the rest of Francisco’s life.

As a businessman, Rey Romero was succesful, dedicated and active. Throughout the 1830s he invariably paid licence dues which were two, three or sometimes even nine times higher than any competitor (14). A notarial act of 1 September 1815 in the Gandara papers bears witness to the attitude which lay behind this succes: the act records how his mother bought back the furniture and silverware which Francisco had received from Cayetano’s inheritance, so that he’d have ready cash to plough back into his business. Other documents show the width of his trading contacts: in an act of December 23rd 1814, he authorizes a Valladolid bookseller by the name of Roldan to claim a debt against the inheritance of one Tomas Cermeño, another bookseller of that town, one imagines for delivered books. And as early as 1826, when a special tax of 30 reales was slapped upon all booksellers of the province, Rey Romero not only paid his own dues, but also - as if it merely concerned a franchise of his own business - those of Don José Garcia, the somewhat fame-famished notary who ten years later would be Borrow’s contact in Pontevedra (15).

As for the wares he sold, Rey Romero knew how to ensure exclusive rights and interesting offers. For each of the period’s newspapers, such as the Boletin Oficial de Coruña (1830s), the ¡Santiago y a ellos! (1842) and the Avisor Santiagues (1846) his shop was the only place for subscription. I found a number of adds in that same Boletin for the year 1838 (no 50, 76, 116, 127, 131, 189 and 192) in which he offers books for sale. It makes little sense to repeat their titles here. They are mostly forgotten legal works and book of that bristling new popular science so common in the mid 19th century. But one of them deserves to be mentioned here: the advertisement of no 116, for the ‘Diccionario razonado de legislacion civil’ , which shows us Rey Romero’s shop as the only one in Galicia, and one of only 13 in all of Spain where the book could be ordered (16). Borrow was most certainly justified in calling this man the most considerable of all the booksellers in northern Spain.

Rey Romero showed his true measure as a merchant, however, during the 7 lean years of the Carlist War (1833-39), when Galicia was riddled with politically inspired banditry. In a postscript to the 1839 Clasificacion de Patentes the city hall laments that harvests can not be gathered in and that trade has ground to a halt because of the Robin Hoodlums roaming the countryside. The effects are immediately visible in the lists of business licenses: the number of silversmiths, for instance, plummeted from 19 to 4 over a decade, and taverns from 235 to 120. Bookshops did no better: in 1826 there were 6, in 1835 there are three left; and by 1836 there are only 2: Rey Romero’s own and the one which his son Juan had just bought from a competitor (17). Lonely at the top, Rey Romero was the only one of all the booksellers to survive the economic slump of the period and to continue in business until the 1840s (18).

Both under the ancien regime and under the new constitutional government of the later 1830s, he seems to have been something of a ‘pillar of society’. In 1831, for instance, we find him in a list of 40 contributors who, headed by the bishop of Santiago, gave money for the building of a fountain in the city prison (note that he gave merely the minimum sum of 20 reales). In 1838 he sat on an extraordinary 30-men commission that had to allott a special war-tax of 1,5000,000 reales over the roughly 250 contributants of the town (even though he himself was small fry paying a mere 1,000 reales). On another occasion, he lends 6,000 reales for the keep of the troops to General Espartero, who has just liberated Santiago from a dashing invasion by the carlist General Gomez (19).

But for all his cooperation with the new liberal regime, we should perhaps beware to think him as anti-clerical as Borrow makes him out to be. The few documents we have simple do not bear this out. As we have seen, his parents were highly devout, his brother was a priest and his sister Lucia, according to her mortuary record of 1842, was a member of the Cofraderia de la Inmaculada Concepción. He himself seems to have been no less religious: before his death he received such sacraments as his desease allowed, his funeral and the subsequent services in the church of the former monastery of San Martin were celebrated ‘with considerable magnificence’, as the officiating priests wrote in the record, he read the Voz de la Religion, which was a newspaper dedicated to religious themes, gave to charity in the best of catholic tradition and when a part of Juan’s inheritance had to be claimed in far away Burgos, he did not hesitate to chose as his representative his former brother-in-law Miguel Pampliega, who was the abbot of Cobarrubias. This does not sound like the biography of a would-be Voltaire (20).

Rather, he strikes me as a good merchant, a surviver who knew how to accommodate himself with all sides in a somewhat senseless conflict, who did his best to keep out of trouble (21), and made sure to enjoy good connections to everybody: to the hierarchy through his brother, to the aristocracy through his second wife, to the new reigning liberal elite through his brother-in-law José Pou, and in various indirect ways to the big institutions of the town (Gandara, his notary, was the secretary of the Great Hospital, for instance, and his mother chose Joaquin Patiño, the head librarian of the university, as executor of her will, next to Buenaventura and Francisco himself). If Rey Romero therefore agreed to sell Borrow’s controversial New Testaments in the vernacular, it may well be that this was less due to “enthusiasm which emanated from on high” as Borrow himself explains it, but rather because he saw a perfectly good business-deal (as 95 Testaments over 9 months for the considerable price of 10 reales each may well be called!)

Rey Romero’s bookshop lived no longer than he did. For a while, he seems to have run it together with his sons, as we learn from an add in the prospect of the Avisor Santiagues of 1846, which calls the shop “Rey Romero y hijos” (22). He was, by this time, 70, and was living alone in the Azabacheria house with his wife Ramona and a new woman servant every year. The children, three of whom - Juan, Ramon and Lucia with her husband Francisco Constanti, were still living with him in 1838, had all moved out by the 1840s (23). He died on the 5th of May 1848 of a stroke, having just turned 73, and was buried next day in the new, municipal graveyard of Santo Domingo (24). After his death, the two houses in the Azabacheria were sold separately. Number 17 was in the long run bought by the neighbor, Josefa Rivas, the widow of the printer Francisco Compañel, while the stock of books was taken over by Francisco Costanti and a partner, to start a new bookshop with. Francisco’s sons went their separate way. Ramon set up shop a few houses down the road, while Juan became an expert printer rather than a bookseller. For some 20 years he did well, but in 1867 he moved his business to Coruña, went bankrupt and had to sell out to competitors (25).

Such was the life of Francisco Rey Romero, the dedicated bookseller who spent 35 years buying, selling and promoting books, but who probably never got to read the most important book in his life: The Bible in Spain, the work that was to make him immortal.

Peter Missler.

Santiago, August 16, 1998.


(1) Casas, Alvaro de las, ‘Mister Borrow por Finisterra’, Memoria del Instituto Elemental de 2a Enseñanza de Noya, Santiago 1935. A copy of this rare publication is available in the Bibliotheca Xeral of the Santiago University. For a summary of De Las Casas’ results, see my article ‘Antonio da Traba, the Hero of Finisterra’ on this website.

(2) Voz de Galicia, May 16, May 31 and June 15 of 1923; Fernandez de la Vega, Celestino, ‘Dous escritores ingleses na Praza Maior de Lugo’, in Galicia desde Londres, Coruña 1994; Garcia Barros, Jorge, Don Jorgito “el ingles”, un mercador-turista en La Coruña del siglo XIX, in Coruña, Paraiso del Turismo, 1971. The identification of Fat Pete is rather unsure. He rather seems to have plied his trade many years later.

(3) His baptismal record is in the Libro de Bautizados de Santa Maria del Camino 1767-1800, folio 81 verso. These records do not begin to mention the address where the parents lived until much later, but possibly Francisco was born in a house of the calle de las Ruedas which his parents are later seen to own. Both Francisco’s first son Juan and his youngest son Ramón called themselves ‘Rey Romero’, even though their names, with the correct matronyms employed, ought to have been Rey Alcocer and Rey Perez respectively.

(4) He was already ‘clerigo de primera tonsura’ and attached to his home parish as assistant by age 14.
Having much to tell and little space to tell it in, I must dispense with full bibliographical references, if only because I had to piece together most of the family history from such chance remarks that priests and notaries threw in when they drew up the official documents.
The main documents used here are: the Libro de Bautizados of Santa Maria del Camino (until 1790) and of San Juan Apostel (after that date) for the baptismal records of brothers, sisters and children of Rey Romero; the Libro de Casados of San Juan Apostel for their marriage records; and the Libro de Difuntos of San Juan for mortuary records. All of these are kept in the Archivo Historico Diocesano in Santiago (AHD).
The notarial acts referred to are all in the papers of Francisco Javier Gandara for the years 1814 (nr. 8096), 1815 (8097) and 1820 (8103). These are kept in the Archivo Historico de la Universidad (AHU) of Santiago. The main ones are: Cayetano’s testament of July 10, 1814 (folio 47-48); the inventory and devision of his inheritance of January ll-12, 1815, plus subsequent documents (folio 273-347); the codicil to Maria Romero’s testament of February 28, 1820 (folio 17-18; her testament was made by Juan Villa in Madrid in June 3rd, 1819, and is not available in Santiago).

(5) The first time a document (Padron Vecinal de San Juan Apostel of AHD) actually mentions the housenumber is 1838. It then carried number 16, which to the best of my calculations (with the help of two calibrating lists from 1861 and 1868 of the city architect Manuel Prado kept in AHU under the title “Numeracion de casas y rotulacion de calles 1868-l944”) is today’s nr. 17. Somewhere after 1820, however, Rey Romero also acquired the house next door, then nr. 17, today nr. 19, and in all subsequent records is said to live in the “calle de la Azabacheria no 16 y 17”.

(6) It is always somewhat futile to try to convert old currencies to today’s values. The reader may get a rough idea by knowing that the Azabacheria house, at a top location, was valued at 73,000 reales.

(7) Cf. Pablo Perez Costanti, Historia del periodismo Santiagües, 1905, reprinted edition by J.L.Cabo, Sada / A Coruña, 1992, p. 16. The decision is recorded in the Libro de Consistorios 1808, 2nd cuatrimestre, AM 307, p. 278 (in AHU).

(8) There are two such records, which register each inhabitants of every house. Both are called ‘Padron vecinal de San Juan Apostel’ . The oldest, parroquial, one, kept in AHD, runs with big gaps from 1795 to 1849. The other, municipal version, in AHU, only begins in 1845.

(9) Libro de Difuntos de San Juan, 1804-1850, folio 102 verso registers the 1810 funerary service, but that the body was never found is proven by the somewhat yearning remark which Cayetano scribbled between the lines of his testament 4 years later: “For although I had another child called Lorenzo, I consider him to have died in the last war.”

(10) Unless I am very much mistaken, it is one of the splendid houses whose rear abuts the rear of the Azabacharia houses, seperated only by a narrow, private alleyway.

(11) Sad to say, this talented young woman, who could write and run a printing press, died less than two months later, on the 5th of March, at age 29. Her family may not have agreed to the wedding, for much against their habit, none of them stood witness to it.

(12) Libro de Casados de San Miguel 1791-1824, folio 150 verso. According to the Libro de Casados de San Juan 1801-1850 they received their “nuptial blessing” on January 16th 1816.

(13) This is the Ramon of whom Rey Romero writes in his letter of June 1839 that he ‘will very soon be as tall as’ Borrow. Cf. Angus Fraser, Benedict Mol, Treasure-digger of Saint James, George Borrow Bulletin no 12, p. 81. I take this occasion to thank Sir Angus for the many patient answers he gave to so many eager questions of mine.

(14) Cf. The Matriculas de Patentes (lists of business-licences) for the years 1834-1844, kept in the AHU file known only under the title ‘Industrial. Matriculas. Altas y bajas 1824-1844.’ The list for the 1820s and the years after 1844 seem to have been lost.

(15) ‘Expediente contribuciones de libreros y impresores 1826’ in the AHU file of the last note. The next year the tax was lowered to 16 reales and Rey Romero paid Garcia’s share once again. There is also a 1830 inscription-form for the municipal business records, in Rey Romero’s beautiful handwriting, in the ‘Libro de inscriptiones de comerciantes de Santiago’ in AHU, but it gives no new information.

(16) Note that there is no trace anywhere of Bibles in the vernacular, even though this was the period in which Rey Romero’s shop offered them for sale.

(17) ‘Matriculas de patentes’ 1834-1840. See note 14 above.

(18) See, however, the first pages of the article ‘Rey Romero’s Testaments’ on this website, which reflect later and different new evidence on the Rey Romero business venue.

(19) Gift to prison: “Demonstracion de los señores subscriptores, cantidades que han contribuido y obras de este Real Carcel en que se ha invertido” of 16 April 1831 in file “Carcel de Santiago, Obras de la misma 1808-1902”, in AHU; Rey Romero on the tax-commission: file ‘Indeterminada. Expedientes. Varios. 1835-1843’ (“Papers collected by Pablo Perez Costanti to avoid their loss”), p. 267-270 in AHU; loan to Espartero: idem, folios 294-295 and 301.

(20) Nor is there anyhere a sign of Rey Romero’s exile in Cee, as told in chapter 27 of the Bible in Spain. It should have taken place following the invasion of the 100,000 sons of Saint Louis in April of 1823, but by 1824 Francisco seems to have been back in town, calmly paying his business license of 93 reales (cf. Libro matricula general para derecho de patentes 1824 in AHU) and since Dionisio Aeropagita was born on the 8th of May 1824, we must suppose Francisco’s presence back home in the summer of 1823. His exile, if it took place at all, did not perhaps last very long. The one thing which does speak in favour of early liberal sympathies is Francisco’s inclusion in a lynching list of 40 prominent Santiago liberals published by the vitriolic newspaper La Estafeta at the height of the post-war political tension of May 1814 (see the reproduction in Meijide Pardo, A., Sinforiano López Alia (1780-1815) (Coruña, 1995), 94f.)

(21) It is my guess that this is one of the reasons why he kept “Benedict Mol” somewhat at arm’s length when the poor treasure-digger was thrown into jail (cf. Angus Fraser, op. cit., p. 77): Rey Romero knew better than to burn his fingers on some indirect acquaintance, while the jails were full of the factious and the legal system was not in the habit of giving the benefit of the doubt to any Carlist suspect.

(22) A Photostat reprint of the front page can be found in Cabo’s Apendice Grafico (no page numbers) in the back of Costanti, op. cit.

(23) Padron Vecinal of San Juan, 1838 and following years, in AHD.

(24) Libro de Difuntos San Juan, 1804-1850, folio 341 recto in AHD; Registro Civil de Difunciones 1848, AHU AM 786, folio 77 recto, no 305. According to these entrees, Rey Romero made his testamant before the scribe Juan Alonso Carretera on June 29th, 1840. I am still trying to locate this document, but it may not have survived.

(25) Cf. Manuel Soto y Freire, La Imprenta en Galicia, Lugo 1982, p. 218f. The two Dionisios’s disappear without a trace after the early 1820s. As for the later life of Ramon, I have found one person of that name in the provincial parliament in 1839, one in the Azabacheria no 14 in 1849, and one in jail for “disobedience” in the 1860s. Whether any, or all, are Francisco’s son, is impossible to tell at this stage.