Auf Readersehen

It may be an odd thing to do, but whenever I’m in another country, I always go to as many bookstores as I can, even when the language is Greek to me. I love seeing the differences in how books are made and promoted, the variations in cover designs and trim sizes and colors. Although I realize I’m looking through rose-colored glasses, there seems inevitably to be a cheeriness in window displays and a pleasant languor in browsing that, at least on the surface, are lacking at home. In the process of visiting sundry foreign bookstores, some places have become like old friends to drop in on when I’m in town. In Berlin, one particular acquaintance I feel I know intimately.

Autorenbuchhandlung isn’t the catchiest name for a bookshop (bookshop is decidedly the right term, rather than bookstore). But Authors’ Bookshop is a good name—the establishment was opened thirty-one years ago by writers who couldn’t find their works for sale elsewhere. Photographs inside document the readings held there over the years, by both German and international literary figures. The store was inaugurated with a reading by Günter Grass and, a few weeks later, an impromptu performance by Allen Ginsberg. Walking around its interior is like stepping into a pictorial version of the Germanlanguage canon, with visages as various as those of the Gruppe 47 writers and poet Durs Grünbein staring down from the walls. If the readings aren’t as frequent these days as they were in the past, they are still a source of considerable interest, even in a city overloaded with cultural events.

What makes Autorenbuchhandlung special? I’ve never been to a bookstore with such a completist approach to poetry in particular. From translations of the Greek and Roman classics to German Romanticism to concrete poetry, the shop seems to lack nothing; it feels as much like a library as a business. If one good way to spend an afternoon is browsing Heine’s oeuvre, it’s even more exciting to come across the little finds that illuminate, as Goethe once promised of learning another tongue, not just the other’s language but one’s own. A gem that I picked up when I last visited, in February, is a bilingual edition of Philip Larkin, with the translator, Waltraud Anna Mitgutsch, impressively striving to render the English poet’s finely tailored structures. Working back and forth across the page between “High Windows” or “Livings” and Mitgutsch’s gloss, I gained not only appreciation for the translator’s Larkin but renewed admiration for the poet’s nimble, colloquial sensibility.

A group of authors who co-own Autorenbuchhandlung outside the bookshop, 2006.
A group of authors who co-own Autorenbuchhandlung outside the bookshop, 2006.

The April issue of Poetry magazine focuses on translation, and its contents serve to remind us how frequently poets themselves undertake translation with only a loose grasp of the host language. Robert Lowell and Ezra Pound, for example, both lacked fluency in languages they translated. In some ways, I think this is the appeal of visiting a foreign bookstore: Not just the fact that one is committing something of a transgression, trespassing on the grounds and roaming the shelves of a place set aside for those for whom the language is second nature, but also that there will always be uncharted territory unfolding before one’s eyes—poets, novelists, whole literary traditions unknown to the visitor beforehand. That latter sense is part and parcel of the neighborhood around the bookshop. Autorenbuchhandlung sits in old West Berlin just off Savignyplatz, a part of Charlottenburg haunted by its literary (and cultural) ghosts. A few houses up the block and on the other side of Carmerstrasse is Walter Benjamin’s former home. (The street itself is the apparent setting of “Einbahnstrasse,” or “One-Way Street,” which he wrote in 1928.) Not far away, on Kurfürstendamm, was the Romanisches Café, the salon that brought together not just Brecht, Döblin, and Kurt Tucholsky but future film director Billy Wilder and composers like Hanns Eisler. And in the period between World War II and the fall of the Berlin Wall, this section of Charlottenburg was the heart of West Berlin cultural life.

Autorenbuchhandlung reflects and extends this tradition. Its proprietor, Thomas Kühne, a friendly gentleman who looks as though he might teach at the nearby university, is a gregarious exponent of the shop’s history and the boutique status it has long enjoyed, despite its no-nonsense interior, among well-known literary figures. When I expressed my admiration for his bookstore in February, he immediately invited me to sit a while at the small table in the second room and have espresso with him and his assistant. He then presented me with a souvenir postcard of Autorenbuchhandlung. In the photomontage, Jean Baudrillard and sociologist Dietmar Kamper are shown in an actual debate held in the store in the mid-1980s, but they are joined on their flank by an eerily rematerialized image of Benjamin.

Bookselling in Germany, as elsewhere, is undergoing tremendous change on account of the rise of chains and the Internet. Sales from mail and Internet orders now account for more than 11 percent of the retail market, and though this figure is still small compared with that in the United States, it has jumped significantly over the last few years. Some of the advantages enjoyed by German booksellers like Autorenbuchhandlung have helped independents stave off and superstores, though. For one, the wholesale system is remarkably well organized, meaning that a customer at any bookshop in Germany, Austria, and the German-speaking part of Switzerland can order a book and it will be delivered within twenty-four hours, making retail shops even faster than websites. Second, the Börsenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels, a consortium of publishers, retailers, and wholesalers, helps to maintain the tradition of decentralized local booksellers, which remain a terrific resource to the bookbuying public.

As a promoter of literary fiction and poetry, Kühne is no different in terms of being an on-the-ground, in-the-shop spokesperson for what I almost with a wince call quality literature— although the emphasis here is less on direct recommendation and more on fostering the serendipity of discovery. In addition to the mountains of books of poetry, Autorenbuchhandlung has stacks upon stacks of the short, inexpensive, but profusely illustrated literary biographies that seem to be a German specialty. And then there are the numerous translations of foreign fiction. Some 40 percent of all works of fiction published in Germany are translations (this compared with somewhere around 3 percent in the United States). Although in February, the tops of the best-seller lists were still occupied by Daniel Kehlmann’s (homegrown) publishing phenomenon Measuring the World, translations of the new Thomas Pynchon, the new William Boyd, and the new Ian Buruma were prominently advertised and displayed. And if Norman Mailer’s then-just-released novel about Hitler’s adolescence hadn’t yet been translated into German? Have no fear: At Autorenbuchhandlung, revealing the cosmopolitanism of its customers, a stack of English-language copies of The Castle in the Forest could be found on a table near the checkout counter. There was no word on how it was moving.

Eric Banks is editor of Bookforum.