Mein Leipzig

On June 29, 1912, Max Brod brought a shy, tongue-tied Franz Kafka to Leipzig to meet a daring young editor named Kurt Wolff. Wolff, then working for Rowohlt Verlag, read Kafka’s brief tales and published them before the year was out.

Peter Hinke, a plump, cheerful Leipzig native, who founded the publishing house and bookstore Connewitzer Verlagsbuchhandlung in 1990, doesn’t claim to be another Kurt Wolff. These days, it’s impossible for a small publisher, armed only with a bike and a cell phone, to compete with the German conglomerates. But he’s doing all he can, fourteen hours a day, to restore the Wolff tradition to his hometown.

Leipzig was once Germany’s “Book City,” home to the country’s largest book fair for more than three hundred years (until WWII) and to half of the German National Library. The large number of publishing houses in the city declined in the German Democratic Republic era, but CV is actively engaged in restoring Leipzig’s bookish reputation. “We’re still here” is the message of their local histories, books of Weimar-era photography, and anthologies of satiric texts from magazines like Der Drache, where Joseph Roth and Sándor Márai published early work.

As the bulky German name suggests, Hinke’s publishing company and two bookstores are inextricably linked. Both shops showcase CV’s own output, an endearing blend of the unabashedly provincial and the yearningly global. Connewitzer Verlagsbuchhandlung, the serious older brother, occupies a narrow, crowded slot between lingerie and wine boutiques in one of the city’s famous arcades, Speck’s Hof. The shop carries a complete range of German literature from major (and many minor) publishers, including forgotten gems the chains don’t bother to stock. Wörtersee (“Word Lake,” named partly for the lakes outside Leipzig) lies across town, near the music school and the municipal library, and is a newer, more downscale venture, where you can collapse into an old red sofa and read poetry from CV’s Wörtersee imprint in small, inexpensive, low-run editions, designed with a distinctive art-deco allure.

Hinke and I met in Leipzig last winter and continued our conversation by e-mail in the spring.

BOOKFORUM: You made an early start as a publisher, even before the collapse of the German Democratic Republic. I hear you took some big risks.

PETER HINKE: I turned twenty-two in 1988. After high school, I studied to become a librarian at the German Book Depository, which was more or less the national library of the GDR. As a Leipzig native, I was of course deeply involved with my own city and open to the changes you could see coming to our country as early as 1987–88. Later, I switched to the Volksbuchhandlung, or People’s Bookstore, where I developed a yen to publish writing and images that I felt were important but that could not be published via official channels.

Before reunification, you couldn’t get permission to publish much at all. We would print a run of fewer than one hundred copies, so that when questioned by the authorities we could call them “approved artists’ editions.” The first issue of the jour- nal SNO’BOY appeared in 1988, a good year and a half before the peaceful revolution. The contributing authors came to the bookstore where I worked at the time, and we produced the magazine with the help of a friend, who had access to a blueprint machine, and a bookbinder, who worked by hand. In this way, we produced a run of fifty copies per issue (with cloth binding for the spine), which were passed around and read by five hundred to eight hundred people. To be sure, a Stasi Moskwitsch was always parked right out in front of the store, but for us it was somehow like a game of cops and robbers. We were moving in a legal gray zone, but the fear of being arrested spurred us on to more ambitious feats.

I once wrote an essay for SNO’BOY about the razing of the Leipzig university church in 1968. The regime under Walther Ulbricht had it torn down in the face of widespread opposition. Leipzig photographer Karin Wieckhorst shot a series of images—now famous—of the explosion that brought down the church. We ran one of them in the magazine, and it was the first time a photo of the event was seen in the GDR.

Everyone who belonged to the inner circle of the magazine tried to make sure their way of thinking, their political positions, was included. Of course, we wondered how far we could go. The way I felt then was that if the work was of high quality, we ought to take the risk and print it. We once ran a story that was set in front of the main office of the Leipzig Stasi, and I remember rehearsing in my mind how I could defend this work to State Security officials. But toward the end, it got so that the surveillance system had its own internal problems. And reprisals of the kind that would have occurred just a few years earlier were not forthcoming.

Many authors I published in this way stayed with me after the shift, and some—including Wieckhorst, Thomas Kunst, Thomas Böhme, and Peter Thieme—are still with us.

BF: Your publishing company is named for a famous Leipzig neighborhood.

PH: In March 1990, I founded the Connewitzer Verlagsbuchhandlung in the neighborhood of the same name. Connewitz was, in its day, a very exciting part of town. Students and squatters lived in old houses, along with longtime occupants. Art galleries (including Judy Lybke’s Eigen Art Gallery, now well known in the United States) and bars com- pleted the picture. Authors like Christa Wolf, Martin Walser, and Christoph Hein gave readings in our bookstore. We sat and talked and drank; we were curious and euphoric. We thought everything was possible.

BF: What’s your connection to Leipzig’s tradition as Buchstadt?

PH: Yes, of course, Leipzig is Book City. But unfortunately, several generations [between 1933 and 1989] missed out, and much has been forgot-ten. I see us as loyal followers of Kurt Wolff and Ernst Rowohlt, although we could never achieve their level of influence and output. But even a small publishing house can take many a forgotten author by the hand and bring them into the new century. The 1920s interest us deeply, but also a great writer like Andreas Reimann, who could barely publish in the GDR years, has not gotten the respect he deserves. There’s still a lot that needs to be done.

BF: Who decides what you publish?

PH: I decide, in the end, what we can do. We work for the most part without outside subsidies. Of course, we’d be more productive if we had more capital. And so, as independent as we are, we are always open to hearing from backers.

BF: Your graphics are remarkable. Are the artists locally trained?

PH: Our book designers and illustrators are mostly Leipzig residents who have won prizes and are often graduates of the local Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst, which was, until recently, headed by Neo Rauch. Our Wörtersee crew, for example, could—with some self-mockery—be called a “Leipzig school” of writers and designers.

BF: You won the Stiftung Buchkunst prize in 2005 for the most beautiful German book of the year. You were the smallest publisher to enter the competition.

PH: Our prize-winning book, Mit einem Reh kommt Ilka ins Merkur (Ilka Comes into the Merkur with a Deer), originated through a desire to produce a book connected with Leipzig (in fact, an anthology of Leipzig poetry from 1900 to 2004) that would be both beautiful and beautifully illustrated. We worked on it for three long years and were lucky enough to find the right artist for the images in Thomas Matthäus Müller.

BF: What can people find in your bookstores that they can’t find anywhere else?

PH: Our decor is old-fashioned, timeless: bare wooden floors, lots of photographs on the walls, wooden bookshelves. The red sofa is only one stone in the mosaic at Wörtersee. It’s a thoughtfully designed bookstore that packs all our favorites into a tiny space and makes room on the walls for lots of drawings and prints by local artists. The work of the publishing company goes on in this same small space. We say, “Klein aber fein!” Spaciousness without floor space.