Story | 04/23/2018 13:13:00

Absorbed in books

It is a Monday evening in a bookshop in Hamburg, where a side room is filling with eager listeners. Bookshop owner Stephanie Krawehl has selected two novels to present to her audience tonight.

Krawehl’s store, Lesesaal, is located in Eimsbüttel, a quarter brimming with tiny brick-and-mortar shops. Customers coming to the bookshop always receive personalised service. Lesesaal has the feel of a cosy living room, and the multi-coloured spines and beautifully laid-out covers of the books attract visitors like a magnet. This evening’s event is themed around French literature and titles that have recently been translated from French into German.

Krawehl describes two novels to the audience: How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferriére and Giratoire by Dominique Paravel, both unknown titles to the audience. This is typical for the German bookshop owner: part of her work is guiding customers and introducing them to carefully selected new works.

Germany is home to approximately 82 million people. In 2015, almost 90,000 new books were published in the country and the publishing industry’s turnover was over EUR 9 billion. Without the reading tips provided by booksellers, finding the right new book from amidst such a massive selection would be an overwhelming task for many readers.

After the presentation of new French novels, the attendees also discuss the differences between printed books and eBooks. There are plenty to be found.

“Printed books allow you to turn the pages slowly. You don’t get the same feeling from an eBook. Both printed books and eBooks are like flowers, but the eBook is a flower without a scent,” describes book club member Zouhair Mahmoud.

Bookshelf as the heart of the home

And what indeed would a home be like without any books? The prospect seems alien: everyone in the book club has a home library.

Printed books create a cosy, homelike feel, as they reflect the owner’s tastes and world view. Reading a book can provide an escape from the daily grind. Many people associate books with holidays, that special time of the year when they finally find time to read, fiction in particular. It feels wonderful to be fully absorbed in a book, like momentarily returning to childhood.

For a child, the home bookshelf can become a real treasure trove, always full of surprises. Childhood reading experiences occupy a special place in the hearts of many readers. Wolfgang Gierens says that the books he had at home had a major influence on his passion for reading. At first, he began exploring books through amazing artwork, as visual imagery made a great impression on him. It was not until later that he began to actually read the text.

“In the past, books were seen as status symbols, but nowadays the situation is different. However, some people still find the format of a book extremely important. Many young people are adamant about only wanting to buy books in print. Then the books find their rightful place on the bookshelf,” Gierens muses.

The inimitable smell of print

The discussion turns to the group’s most memorable book-related experiences. One literature enthusiast names The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas as having made the biggest impression. Another reminisces about the feat of wading through Elective Affinities, the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The third remembers having read the entire bibliography of Franz Kafka in their youth.

Having familiar books on the shelf creates an air of safety and a feeling of being at home. It doesn’t matter if the pages are falling out after being read over and over, or if every corner is dog-eared. The book lovers gathered at Lesesaal also hear excerpts from two French novels. The first captures the loud tapping sound of the Remington typewriter, the second conjures up a car whizzing through the French countryside.

This year, many Germans have enriched their bookshelves with French literature newly translated into German. After this evening, a good few will also be adding novels by Laferriére and Paravel to their shelves.

Prize for innovative booksellers

Two diminutive diplomas hang in the window of the Lesesaal bookshop in Hamburg: Deutscher Buchhandlungspreis 2015 and 2016. This is a prize given to private booksellers with a turnover of less than EUR 1 million in recognition of their excellent work promoting literature.

“The award boosts your reputation in the book industry. It helps booksellers to be taken seriously and get invited to literary events,” explains Stephanie Krawehl, prize-winning bookshop owner. Krawehl regularly organises events, actively participates in the literary life of Hamburg, and strives to advance literature in schools and kindergartens.

There are approximately 6000 bookshops in Germany. Small, privately owned bookshops are a highly visible part of the urban landscape in many cities. Presented by the German Ministry of Culture, the Deutscher Buchhandlungspreis was launched in 2015 to highlight the significant role played by booksellers in keeping literature alive. The award, presented by the German Ministry of Culture, was launched in 2015.


Helen Partti

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