Marcin Wilk is a writer, journalist, and blogger based in Kraków UNESCO City of Literature. As part of his virtual writing residency in Norwich throughout February 2021, he spent time researching the independent bookshops of Norwich, meeting their owners and booksellers, and examining the role that bookshops play in our communities.
If I’m being honest, I’ve never been a bookworm, the kind that hides under the covers with a torch to illicitly continue reading about his favourite heroes’ adventures after lights out. That lack of passion very quickly backfired on me, actually. One of the first bad grades I received at school was for not reading a book, no less. I was left pretty red-faced. Incidentally, I can’t fathom now why I didn’t do it. The book I failed to read was a moving story about the friendship between some children and a fawn. And I’ve always loved animals!
Being very honest, now as I write these words it seems completely unbelievable to me, but at that time books didn’t interest me at all. They seemed boring, pathetic, and sad. What’s more, they were an obvious waste of money. It was my father who made sure we had books at home, and we had a lot. I felt no attraction towards them, and that was that.
There were few exceptions, one of which was Atlas für jedermann, a large and fairly heavy A4-size tome with maps, photographs and interesting titbits in a language I definitely didn’t know, although – and this is very odd – back then it seemed to me that I understood everything. For many years of my adult life I totally erased Atlas für jedermann from my memory. I remembered it recently, almost by accident. What brought that recollection back to mind? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that it happened in an independent bookshop.
Incredible things often happen to me in small bookshops, as if coming from another dimension, infused with a magic I couldn’t invent if I tried. A few years ago, at a meeting like one of the many organised by the staff of indie bookshops and which I happened to be moderating, at a shop I know in Cracow called De Revolutionibus, there was a man, perhaps fifteen years older than me, who kept staring intensely at me. It was not the gaze of a bookworm, nor was there any other kind of passion in his eyes. I could see too much goodness in those eyes and too much sadness at the same time. I felt that gaze fixed on me for the entire discussion, though fortunately I don’t think the guest at the meeting, Miljenko Jergović, noticed my distraction. He spoke beautifully and passionately about Ernst Wilimowski, the pre-war king of the football pitches from Upper Silesia.
DeRevo, as De Revolutionibus is known, is mostly frequented by students from nearby universities, but tourists visit too, for whom Milena, the shop manager, has prepared a separate section of English-language books about the city. Booksellers who decide themselves what to offer know how to observe their clients. That’s probably why it so often feels like bookshops are a reflection of the city in which they’re located. In Berlin, the rainbow bookshop Prinz Eisenherz has made itself a home on Motzstrasse, the most important LGBT street in town. In Norwich, there are several independent bookshops and a whole host of treasure-filled second-hand ones. ‘Norwich has more than the cities of Cambridge and Oxford added together,’ say Phillip and Ian from Tombland Bookshop. That makes sense, since with each passing year the circle of creators wanting to work in the city grows bigger.
Incredible things often happen to me in small bookshops, as if coming from another dimension, infused with a magic I couldn’t invent if I tried
It would be easy to imagine that gaze locked on the meeting moderator as the beginning of a tale of burning desire. It could last for years like unfulfilled love. Even if the object is unattainable, no-one expects a sad ending to that kind of story. We tear through hundreds of pages, trembling every few chapters with the joy and hope for fulfilment that erupts time and again. The measure of good fantasy is that we don’t want to reach the end and go back to the real world. Brilliantly written stories never disappoint in that respect, setting our inner harmony out of kilter and yet leaving our lives unscathed.
But the meeting with Jergović happened in real life, and the gaze fixed on me required some kind of explanation. The older man, the cause of my distraction, came over at the end of the discussion and stopped me. He asked if I was the son of Józek, the footballer who played for the regional team. Yes, that’s me.
The man had obviously come to the book meeting to hear about football, but he’d discerned in the face of the moderator the features of his deceased friend from the pitch. I don’t know what story he left that bookshop with.
‘…To stand in a great bookshop crammed with books so new that their pages almost stick together, and the gilt on their backs is still fresh, has an excitement no less delightful than the old excitement of the second-hand bookstall,’ wrote Virginia Woolf in the essay, ‘Hours in a Library’. The sentence contained both a recollection and a dream. One goes to a bookshop to make a purchase after all, and yet the buyer often knows that these are special objects, ‘iconic cultural objects’ as Dr Maria Angélica Thumala Olave, a researcher at Edinburgh University, would put it. The British – as the data she collected shows – not only still read a lot, they also want to own books. Even before the pandemic, in 2018, over 190 million books were sold in the United Kingdom. That is an impressive figure, although what matters to readers is not quantity but quality, the process of familiarising oneself with the materiality of a book, turning it into a separate, individual and unique entity.
Is that exactly why at one time in my life I found opening a new book incredibly stressful? I must have been aware that bad things could happen at the first touch. Scratching the laminated cover, dirtying the block of pages, not to mention staining it – all of that together or individually could be the source of real concern. In my defence, I have to say that at one point in my life books were not just precious items but quite simply expensive ones, too. I’d save up for weeks to buy a new volume. I devotedly collected various series, clearly lacking some imagination, not realising that books are also objects and that one day I’d be so engulfed by them that the concern would no longer be little stains on the pages but the towers ready to topple onto me in the middle of the night.
Huge quantities of amassed books may sometimes inspire terror, but they can also be an invitation to a fascinating journey. In The Book Hive, one of the best indie bookshops in Norwich, visitors are met with cascades of books as soon as they step inside. There are no sections, so beloved by mechanic algorithms and which are so problematic for many authors, as people rarely enjoy being put in boxes like that. In doing this, The Book Hive’s managers aren’t ignoring the customs adopted on the market, but are rather trying to invite in those people who are really looking for books. And are ready to devote some time to it.
what matters to readers is not quantity but quality, the process of familiarising oneself with the materiality of a book, turning it into a separate, individual and unique entity
I was doing exactly that, sitting for hours on end in an independent bookshop and perusing old German guidebooks, when I remembered the lands I ended up in as a child thanks to the Atlas für jedermann, and almost immediately, instinctively, I wanted to find it and order it online. I’d have no problem even finding the same edition. But in the end, I didn’t. Something stopped me from buying ‘someone else’s’ copy in an online second-hand shop. By doing so I forwent the convenient purchase of a parcel that would reach me in its grey cardboard packaging directly at my home within 3 to 10 days of placing my order, at a competitive price plus the cost of foreign delivery.
But what did such expedience matter to me, when my Atlas für jedermann was the only one of its kind?
These sorts of whims seem incomprehensible to the enemies of books, cruel materialists stripping the world of dignity and reducing the complex relations of reality to defenceless materiality.
In a carefully organised spectacle on 10 May 1933, in several dozen towns across the Third Reich, tens of thousands of books deemed harmful were burned. Behind this brownshirt campaign, labelled (oh, the irony) an ‘Enlightenment’ one, was the ideology of national socialism. The piles of burning books included the works of, among others, Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig. Erich Kästner’s books burned too. The author apparently saw that grim scene play out before his own eyes. I can’t begin to imagine what he thought and felt.
In Isabel Coixet’s film The Bookshop, the protagonist decides to realise her dream and opens a little bookshop in a small English town, where everything is as it should be: the book-loving shopkeeper, readers devoted to literature and every space filled from floor to ceiling with books. But not everyone approved of Florence Green’s idea. Alongside the spectacular scenes of a woman reading, which are infused with true freedom, the audience has at one point to confront the painful scene of the bookshop in flames. We watch that ominous fire from a slight distance, through the eyes of the bookseller, who stands fifty or so metres from the site of the tragedy. The worst part is the kind of dual helplessness, ours and the bookseller’s, with which we have to watch the burning building.
But the story doesn’t always have to end badly. As I was collecting material for a book on daily life in Poland in the final weeks before the Second World War, Room with a View: Summer 1939, I came to Gdynia, where I spent around fifteen hours listening to the recollections of Marian Niemierkiewicz, the son of the owner of an old-style bookshop. His father didn’t only sell books and music scores, he also had a publishing house and his shop was a culture-forming institution. But the destinies of Niemierkiewicz Senior’s rich book collections differed. During the Second World War, the occupier took over the business and books were binned by the shovelful. Their fate seemed sad and sealed. But when he reopened the bookshop after the war, people kept turning up with items they’d rescued from the rubbish bins. They brought back the books of the dear Niemierkiewicz bookshop.
The intimacy we experience when reading is quite a new invention, popularised along with printing, as I was reminded recently by Joe Hedinger, bookseller at The Book Hive. In the past, people used to gather to listen to someone tell a story. Today we can only imagine what that was really like, even if some echoes of those tales, their rhythm, form and contents have reached us, written in the ancient sagas, epics and other works a given culture considers essential. The intimacy of reading combined with a feeling of togetherness is something very familiar to members of book clubs who, as they discuss the books they have read, sometimes open up to one another to tell the same story from different perspectives. People are then separate, but still together.
Book clubs are often organised informally by groups of enthusiasts. People also often meet in libraries or independent bookshops. For years I’ve run a club like this that focuses on reading classic literature. We don’t test each other on the cannon but rather look for what might interest us now as grown-up, free people. Often this leads to intimate confessions. ‘To read human sentiments in human language you must be able to read humanly, with all of you‘, wrote Harold Bloom in the introduction to How to Read and Why, a collection of essays on classical texts. I think he perfectly captures what sometimes happens at book clubs for classical literature.
The book club at The Book Hive has a unique formula and what distinguishes it is shared silence. The regular meetings of Page Against the Machine, where one reads in silence, for oneself, combine the intimate situation with the sense of belonging to a group. Smartphones are put to one side, the only focus is reading. In this way the dangerous part of confrontation is avoided, which can result in something unpleasant. For instance, the sense of disappointment when confronted with diverging interpretations is less rare than you might expect. Discussions about a book can then turn into heated arguments and quarrels, and those of course can cause real pain. Though sometimes they can also serve as a lesson.
The intimacy of reading combined with a feeling of togetherness is something very familiar to members of book clubs
Online booksellers or ones in large supermarkets often boast that such potentially unpleasant confrontation cannot occur there. The atmosphere of anonymity democratises access, ensuring those who buy books in these systems don’t feel judged. That is a serious problem, incidentally, and I don’t intend to minimise it here, although I was surprised to learn that my friends – writers, in fact, and so people involved in publishing and thereby also supporting the independent publishing market as well as bookshops – spoke coldly of nice, small bookshops. ‘Stuck-up,’ said friend A about independent bookshop Z. ‘It’s snobby,’ said friend B about another bookshop X. They weren’t compliments. It took a longer conversation for us to work out that they meant specific bookshops and specific booksellers.
It’s another matter that not all booksellers have to be nice and make our dreams come true. Indeed, what inspires a feeling of comfort can vary. Some people prefer brightly-lit floors filled with colourful books for younger readers (like for instance in Bookbugs and Dragon Tales in Norwich), others go for dimmer spaces crowded with books (like Norwich’s Tombland Bookshop). As for booksellers – I’d be a bit more understanding. Of course, sometimes in life you meet curmudgeons, and the atmosphere when you step inside can be oppressive. On the other hand, running an independent bookshop is no walk in the park. Often, making a dream come true is the hardest work of a lifetime. Those who have given up on their dreams will never understand that. Independent bookshops are run by people, not machines.
And it’s another matter entirely that we clients can sometimes be awful. Sometimes we really ought to be ashamed of ourselves. One day an outraged man burst into a bookshop I frequent and had clearly not come in search of books, because otherwise he wouldn’t have yelled: ‘Is this a lefty bookshop?’. It wasn’t a nice question. There was no friendship in it, no desire to understand. He was someone who already had the answers to his questions. It’s tempting to say that in principle the presence of such people in bookshops is somehow illogical. But they too will sometimes enter bookshops. Many booksellers are prepared to speak to them. They’re ready for confrontation. I admire them for being so brave when they must, after all, be afraid.
The Book Hive had serious doubts about whether moving Page Against the Machine to the virtual space would betray the principle enshrined in its name of leaving electronics aside. But on the other hand, it had never been about the machine, but the page, that is, reading. And anyway, you can always try something new.
The announcement of the first lockdown struck cosy bookshops with sheer dread, because for many, the toil and hardship of an already-difficult daily life became even more arduous. Independent bookshops founded on mutual contact and physical proximity had to face up to the worst nightmare of anyone who works for themselves and is brave enough not to hide under the protective umbrella of an organised group (it’s another matter that sometimes those protective umbrellas take more care of the umbrella than the people standing beneath them). That nightmare was isolation.
The first challenge most bookshops faced was to decide whether or not to move online. The natural reaction would be to put the books on the internet, but indies have always been less about looking at a smartphone and more about looking eye to eye. In that context, resistance to moving online was understandable. But independent bookshops still coped, sometimes coming up with simple yet ingenious ideas. In Poland, an initiative called ‘Books over the phone’ was launched, so you could once again talk to a bookseller and at the same time support your favourite bookshop by placing an order. In Norwich, a witty music video appeared to the joyful song ‘The Musical’. It features the charismatic Leann Fridd from Bookbugs and Dragon Tales. It isn’t just a song extolling the bookshop owner’s remarkable energy, it’s also a hymn to neighbourly community – another positive thing lockdown reminded us of.
The announcement of the first lockdown struck cosy bookshops with sheer dread, because for many, the toil and hardship of an already-difficult daily life became even more arduous.
And there was uplifting news at the end of the year from at least some bookshops in the UK and Poland. For many independent bookshops, December was a very profitable month in terms of turnover and sales. It seems residents of towns and cities understood the necessity to look after what is nearby, local, familiar. ‘Bookshops are like the world,’ wrote Jorge Carrion in Bookshops, which is to a large extent a collection of stories about journeys around the world in search of temples to books. We discovered this when we set off to a nearby bookshop.
‘The future,‘ wrote Virginia Woolf, ‘is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think,‘. In this way I prefer to think of the crisis as an opportunity for change. But I have to stress that Covid isn’t just a moment for thought and a deepened state of meditation, or for reflections on the meaning of life. For some this virus brings true tragedy. The social costs of the transformation brought by the pandemic are hard to estimate today. Maryl Halls of the British Bookshop Association confirms this, indicating that for now the figures are optimistic and that 2020 was another year in which independent bookshops registered with the association grew in number, rather than declined. At the end of the pandemic year there were 967 bookshops in total, compared to 890 in 2019, 883 in 2018, and 868 in 2017. But what lies in store for them next?
Finding ourselves slightly afraid of the future, but also heeding Virginia Woolf, we prefer to think a scent of hope is wafting over the world. Being under threat can trigger creativity, as can a sense of sudden closeness. That’s good. But it’ll be best if these states of fervour turn into familiarity and we don’t stop supporting independent bookshops once the pandemic is over. Because it will be over one day, like all past and future epidemics.
I must have received the Atlas für jedermann from my father. He brought it home, or rather still had to smuggle it back. Perhaps from Hungary, where he used to go with his uncle and cousins. I’d bet my life that the atlas was published in 1989. It was the fifth edition, but the worst thing is that I really don’t remember much of what I read in it. How can memory treat a person so ruthlessly? Or is it that we cut ourselves off from the past?
A lot has changed since I was a boy. I fell in love with books and independent bookshops, thanks to which I learned a lot about myself and the world. Leafing through books, meeting other people, speaking to booksellers, who often turned out to be the best listeners and confidants for various literary and non-literary states of mind or body, I broadened my knowledge. And perhaps something more.
Independent booksellers dare to look with a longer perspective, they aren’t focused on the sale of products, they never stop looking for future winners.
In her Nobel lecture, Olga Tokarczuk used the word ‘tenderness’, which took off in its own right, although I’m not sure the word itself is the most important thing here. What matters is that thanks to the most important literary prize in the world, you could find Tokarczuk in all bookshops, but it was the independent ones that had her books first and it was there you could buy them when the Nobel Prize was first announced.
Independent booksellers dare to look with a longer perspective, they aren’t focused on the sale of products, they never stop looking for future winners. You can see it in the names of books that you often can’t find in big chains but you can in indies. That’s also where I very often experience that tenderness, towards myself and towards the world, towards all those years gone by, experiences and books I’ve read, which allow me to understand a little better who I am and the true significance for me of the Atlas für jedermann.
Marcin Wilk is a writer, journalist, and blogger. For many years he was the curator of the Przemysły Książki [“Book Industries”] at the International Literary Festival – Conrad Festival in Kraków (Poland), as well as the moderator of the Reading Discussion Clubs on classical literature in the same city. Author of the biographies of two famous Polish women: singer Anna Jantar (Tyle Słońca, 2015), and actress Irena Kwiatkowska (Żarty się skończyły, 2019), and a historical reportage Pokój z widokiem. Lato 1939 [A Room with a View. Summer 1939] (2019). He is an editor of Wyliczanka.eu – a portal about books and literature.
Imagining the City brings together five writers from UNESCO Cities of Literature across the world to explore connections between Norwich and their cities; link up with local writers; and work on a range of commissions. Read more