Is it a sign of some sort of cultural imperiousness or jingoism on my part that I always hope, wherever I go, there might be a few old English language books to buy? Maybe it’s just my sunny optimism, or my insatiable bibliomania? There is certainly no dearth of places to find old books in Berlin and English language books at that, but I’m starting to realise that really what I’m looking for (and very rarely finding) is a certain type of bookshop and this might become apparent in my little reviews of a selection of Berlin’s bookshops below.
First of all, this is my first visit to Berlin and I am staggered by the scale of the city. Streets can run on for 2 kilometers and there can be as much as 10 kilometers between bookshops and they’re all still defined as being in the centre of Berlin, which seems to lack any discernible centre as far as I can see. It’s a city for public transport anoraks and those who love hoofing about to try and get to know a city better. For a determined soul like me, who wants to spend a whole day in pursuit of old tomes, think nothing of clocking up over 20000 steps on your pedometer…
Naturally there is a vast amount of accumulated blandishment and hyperbole on the internet that surrounds places visited by tourists, written by those tourists, gushing about the experience they’ve had. Bookshops are no exception. Perhaps they think it’s in poor form to criticise a place that has ‘institution’ status and opt instead for what Noel Coward once called ‘unqualified praise’, case in point Saint George’s English Bookshop.
Saint George’s English Bookshop (Wörther Str. 27). My knowledge of the zones of Berlin is nil but I’m guessing the area that surrounds this bookshop is the fiefdom of the Berlin hipster, the reserve of the expat jeunesse dorée. All the shops along Wörther Str. look posh and ‘curated’ and as I walked to Saint George’s I felt my expectations dwindle because I already knew what sort of bookshop it would be. My fears were confirmed. On the positive side, this is all English-language and there will be harder to find authors here (nice to see a selection of John Berger…). Also the shop clearly runs something of a bartering system, or at least they are ready to buy books from locals. That’s all dandy. However, I’ve seen this type of shop all over the place – it looks like, aesthetically, it has been heavily styled on the Topping & Company chain – with lots of bright light and pale wood everywhere (beech/ash?). While they do sell new books, the bulk is second-hand, unlike Topping & Company. But the stock is all safe, sanitised and quite pricey. You’ll never ever find a bargain or a rare book, if you are that way inclined (and I’ve no shame in admitting I am). There’s no denying this place is popular, but in my own warped world-view, popular does not immediately equal good. I don’t feel studiedly cool enough to be in this shop.
Another Country (Riemannstraβe 66). Now THIS is what a second-hand bookshop should be! Ignore all squeamish reviews written by those who should have just gone to Saint George’s in the first place, if you only have time to go to one bookshop in Berlin, you must make it this one. In fact, I’ll go as far as to say this is the only second-hand bookshop really worth visiting in Berlin. This is a sprawling, dusty, endearingly dishevelled shop / lending library / informal literary salon / talk shop presided over by English expat Sophie. I gather this shop has been part of the furniture of Berlin for nearly two decades and long may it continue. I think this shop must have been the pioneer of the English bookshops in Berlin. Few bookshops win me over quite so quickly – I love the sheer shagged-out, banjaxed atmosphere – scruffy chairs from a party dotted all over the place, half full wine glasses, beer bottles, a half-eaten and congealed buffet. This is not a mausoleum or place where books go to die like a few unkind reviewers have said, it’s the opposite. It’s a friendly nodal point where weary literary minded travellers meet, though I imagine that, with all such ‘cult’ places, there will be a cliquishness to the place that I can’t gauge after only one visit. It was very quiet when I went in which is strange but also a blessing. Why are dull, disappointing shops like Saint George’s so oversubscribed (I could barely get moved when I was in) and yet havens like Another Country are so poorly attended? I think it goes back to my theory that deep down most people are scared by things that are too real or uncompromising – they need something peer-approved, convenient and sterilised (in effect they really want to be told where to go and what to buy). When I was young and charity shops were still ‘unreconstructed’ they had a reputation as being dirty and embarrassing and few people visited them (yet they had real bargains). Now they’re about 1000 percent more expensive than they used to be and they sell mostly worthless junk and everyone wants to be in them because they’re pasteurised and all the bacteria is dead. It’s bizarre.
But on a practical book-buying level, Another Country is excellent – a huge range of books and good authors too (found a Nawal El-Sadaawi, a James Kelman, a Louis Paul Boon translation and a bio of Nancy Cunard – all hardbacks). I say poppycock to the person on Google reviews who said that the stock of this shop is just old rubbish and fleamarket rejects (the sound of an amateur who doesn’t know what they are looking for/at). My haul of books came to 15 euros and contained (in the form of the Kelman) one real gem. What’s more, I could take these books back and be refunded to the tune of 9 euros – most shops would be looking to give you a euro per book, at the very most. I was also invited by Sophie to her Friday evening meal in the shop (rather like the Jim Haynes idea in Paris, but a lot cheaper I imagine!). In the words of Dennis Severs: ‘aut visum aut non’ (‘Either you see it, or you don’t’).
The Berlin Book Nook: This little chain has two branches at Braunschweigerstr. 66 and Pflügerstraβe 63. Both are run by extremely pukka-sounding English expats (perhaps members of the same family?). One of the people could barely understand me – nothing like good old Received Pronunciation to make the regional English speaker feel a foreigner in their own mother tongue. The major, and alas insurmountable, problem with both of these shops is that they are not run by knowledgeable book people – they might be very refined readers with an excellent understanding of literature, but as to pricing books, they are clearly internet-dependent, which is always a recipe for disaster. You get the impression that such a shop compulsively checks the value of their stock online over and over again. A rather well-read first edition (minus the dust-wrapper) of Auden and Isherwood’s Ascent of F6 is definitely not worth 25 euros, heck, I wouldn’t even pay that for a good example in the dust-wrapper! That said, the stock was fun to browse and of course I am really missing the point – these shops mainly exist to sell reading matter to locals / expats and do not cater for truffle-hunters such as myself. Interesting to see a paperback with an ‘ex libris Michael Hulse’ stamp in it, but at 10 euros, I had to put it back. However, I did make my best discovery in the Pflügerstraβe branch – a 1750s German cordial glass which the owner said had come in with a box of books. As a keen glass collector, my heart leapt to be able to buy something so old and at such a bargain price. Still not a book though!
Finally, there’s Curious Fox (Flughafenstr. 22). This one is well-worth the trip and is a contender for the second-best in Berlin. I was served by a very friendly Irish woman when I was in the shop, which comprises three main rooms filled with general stock and a few exceptions. Noteworthy is the shop’s emphasis on poetry, always a boon in my books and in their secondhand section I found, in hard-back, a very clean copy of Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems. Anyone who is a Gilbert fan and happens to live outside of the States will know just how hard it is to find anything by Gilbert, other than Bloodaxe’s Transgressions: Selected Poems and that is always hard to find as well! I simply don’t understand how anyone on earth, once they possessed a copy, would want to part with it? I boosted my haul with one more book, a pretty decent Hogarth Press first edition of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (alas, sans dust-wrapper – but at 5 euros, where are you going to find it any cheaper!?!). My only grumble with this shop is actually nothing to do with the mechanics of the shop itself, but more the culture that surrounds it, and bookshops like it. It’s clearly a place with the seal of approval from the local hip expat crowd, but that also has its drawbacks for me as a customer. I was busy buying my books and chatting with the owner, when a youngish American fellow comes bounding in and announces, over my conversation with the owner who is at that very moment serving me, that he has arrived and he’s leaving his backback at the till. Perhaps I attach too much of a value, being a Brit, on the merits of queueing and patience, but this move to me smacked of ‘I am much more important than you, your business can wait’. It’s this cliquish, proprietorial, almost territorial aspect I don’t like in bookshops, how they attract a scene of neighbourhood snobs who are not going short in the amour-propre department.
These five shops are the only bookshops to my knowledge that exclusively deal in used English printed matter. There are a number of other second-hand bookshops that have an English section, and these can be very hit-or-miss, such as Berliner Büchertisch, which sells books very cheaply for charity and Pequod Books (Selchower Str. 33) which yielded a very early Penguin paperback edition of Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels for 3 euros. There’s also the overrated Shakespeare and Sons (Warschauer Str. 74) which sounds uncomfortably close to Shakespeare and Co in Paris, which is another of my tourist-trap bête noires. This place has a very similar vibe to Saint George’s, although Shakespeare and Sons also sells coffee and bagels which equals an abundance of Mac laptops where there should be tables full of coffee cups and plates of bagels. I wish I could get my message across to the marketing people who dream up such places time and time again that food, drink and books simply do not mix – the books always become a lesser consideration and the people who try to look at the books can’t because the tables full of people working on Mac laptops and making their coffee last all day are in the way. That said, the stock of books is mostly English, but expensive (both new and secondhand), although I did find a signed hardback copy of J. M. Coetzee’s Landscape with Rowers: Poetry from the Netherlands which, for 15 euros, seemed to me to be very cheap (perhaps they hadn’t noticed the signature?). My best find of all the bookshops came from Antiquariat Bücherhalle (Hauptstraβe 154, and 155 is where Bowie lived during his Berlin years in the 1970s) – a signed copy of George Mackay Brown’s Fishermen with Ploughs for 4 euros! – concrete proof, if it was ever needed, that anything can be anywhere.
At Fetting u. Minx Antiquariat(Bergmannstr. 20, and close to Another Country) I found an extremely rare (1835) edition of The Scottish Orphans (an early book for children by Isabella Moncrieff) for 5 euros (Copac lists no copies of this particular print run). However, the owner did rankle me somewhat by ordering me to surrender my backpack when I entered the shop. This is something that I find extremely galling – not only does it imply that ‘I think you are a thief’ but you also have to risk your own valuables getting stolen. My problem is that at any one time I have my notebook on me and at least a few very good fountain pens that would be either expensive or impossible to replace. Shops such as these will not accept any responsibility if, when the shop owner’s back is turned, someone steals your backpack from behind the counter. This is simply not fair and shop owners cannot expect their customers to risk their valuables this way. I usually protest when I’m asked to give up my bag and if this doesn’t work then I either leave the shop or publicly remove all valuable items from my bag and put them in my pockets (the latter option this time). In the heat of the moment, while I stuff my pockets with my belongings, I’ve been known to say ‘well if you don’t trust me, I also don’t trust you’. Bookshop owners: please stop doing this, you only seem to target the young(ish) and backpack-carrying – an old woman with her handbag, why don’t you also ask her, or a suited man with his briefcase? It’s really an act of arbitrary discrimination that in the end sours me against your shop.
One final groan: I went to one shop that called itself a ‘modern antiquariat’ but this transpired to be just new books, not (as I’d thought/deduced) books from the 20th century onwards. Why put ‘antiquariat’ in the name if you only sell brand spanking new stuff? Also, Raum B (Wildenbruchstr. 4), although a nice and friendly shop, describes itself as a ‘rare book store’, but the stock was of the most ordinary kind and not a rare book in sight.
But you really must visit Another Country if you get the chance – that’s the sort of book shop I’ve been looking for!