Small independent bookstores are the new glittering lights on literary map

September 19, 2013 Alena Tveritina, RBTH
Unconventional bookstores are springing up in Russia’s major cities. RBTH offers an overview of the new bastions of book culture in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
According to Shashi Martynova, the cofounder of Magic Bookroom stores, Dodo space  is "a cultural center where people can discuss everything that books talk about to us". Source: Press photo
According to Shashi Martynova, the cofounder of Magic Bookroom stores, Dodo space is "a cultural center where people can discuss everything that books talk about to us". Source: Press photo

These days, Moscow’s new independent bookstores, evoke the ambience of a salon – a setting for inspiration and conversation. Likewise, they have become much more than merely a place to buy books: they can be a source of abundant cultural events. Atmosphere and a selection that reflects the owners’ tastes take center stage.

These stores often refrain from selling the mega-best sellers – preference is given less to what is profitable, and more to what is aesthetically or academically valuable. Many stores of this type work with small publishers, whose products are not even stocked by the large retail outlets.

Bohemians and members of the intellectual elite were once the regular patrons of such establishments. But in the past ten years, a more diverse cross-section of urbanites has begun to frequent these independent bookstores.

The cult Moscow stores Project O.G.I. (1999–2012) and Falanster (opened in 2002) set the rules for these stores, and their influences are strongly felt in this new wave of booksellers.

Moscow: A focus on new services

The design of the small, but notable, Magic Bookroom stores (Dodo, Dodo-ZIL and Omnibus stores), founded in 2009, whimsically and delightfully recalls the works of Lewis Carroll.

“We wanted – and I feel we succeeded – to create an informal book space, free of gratuitous snobbery and solemnity, a cultural center where people can discuss everything that books talk about with us – science, art, the artistic craft and so on,” said Shashi Martynova, the cofounder of the group and a well-known Moscow publisher.

Magic Bookroom cheerfully exploits its playful nature: in addition to events with authors, lectures and master classes, it organizes “dodo merrymaking,” based on Carroll’s and other stories, and storytelling sessions. It also offers a selection of books in English.

Innovative services are available at the tiny bookstore Khodasevich (opened in 2012). Here visitors can find both new and gently used volumes and riffle through drawers containing books that are free or only a few cents. Patrons can even use the store like a library with subscriptions lasting two months, six months or a year for about eight dollars a month.

Patrons can even use the Khodasevich store like a library with subscriptions lasting two months, six months or a year for about eight dollars a month. Source: Ivan Mitin / Live journal

“A new book costs an average of 400 rubles ($13), so when you combine that with the fact that someone can easily read around five books in a month, the advantage is obvious,” said the owner, Stas Gaivoronsky. The store also offers a service called “Book Detective,” which searches the rarest editions on the market. Gaivoronsky said that if a book is particularly difficult to track down, the service costs between 1,000 and 1,500 rubles ($33–$50).

If you merge a playful atmosphere with a book search and add a comfortable café to the mix, you end up with the store/club Hyperion. The store has a club-twin: the GOROD Russian cultural center in Munich. Hyperion and GOROD plan to team up to launch a project related to educational tourism during the 2013-2014 school year.

Saint Petersburg: Atmosphere above all

In Saint Petersburg, “Poryadok Slov” was the first bookstore of this new genre, opening in January 2010. Its shelves are full of quality nonfiction, and the programming includes lectures and film screenings; writer-intellectuals and directors are among the eminent guests.

According to its founders, Vse Svobodny bookstore's atmosphere is intended to evoke the charm of a “Petersburg home library.” Source: Press photo

In 2011, Vse Svobodny opened in the courtyard next to Palace Square. Its atmosphere is intended to evoke the charm of a “Petersburg home library,” as its founders, Artem Faustov and Lyubov Belyatskaya, characterize it. “We were inspired by what Falanster did,” Faustov told RBTH. “We had a few similar directives: first, the books must be inexpensive; second, no books of mass consumption [such as pulp fiction]; third, a specialization in the humanities, because this is particularly dear to us; and fourth, independence.” The record store and tearoom have been welcome additions.

In 2013, the pair opened a second store, My, in the former House of War Books, which had been one of the oldest bookstores in Saint Petersburg. In Faustov’s words, “It is more mainstream, with an emphasis on popular academic and children’s literature.”

While the House of War Books did not make it, another bookstore from the Soviet network, Podpisnye Izdaniya, was reborn in 2012. Like a phoenix from the ashes, it is now among Saint Petersburg’s most interesting venues.

“We completely changed the interior and tripled the selection,” said Mikhail Ivanov, the co-owner. “We put an emphasis on academic and children’s literature, and we got books in other languages and significant publications on art, design and style.” The store houses a coffee bar, and the music comes from vinyl records that customers are allowed to play themselves.

Podpisnye Izdaniya bookstore is now among Saint Petersburg’s most interesting venues. Source: Press photo

Recently, Podpisnye Izdaniya launched a noble initiative: it donates books on urban studies and business to Saint Petersburg officials. “We want to draw their attention to good practices,” Ivanov said.

Glimmering points on the map

There’s no shortage of outstanding literary endeavors, such as Chitalka, Lavochka Detskikh Knig and Tsiolkovsky in Moscow, and Svoi Knigi and Books & More in Saint Petersburg.

Some stores close quickly after having had only a brief chance to shine – it is hard to withstand the competition from the large retail chains. However, as Shashi Martynova put it, “There is hope that the small independent bookstores will continue to exist in the form of unique social spaces.”

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