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Scene in Berlin

December 15, 2011

Berlin loves to buck trends. While many readers are trading their paperbacks for tablets, independent booksellers are seeing a renaissance in Berlin - from niche shops to a book hawker who can read more than just texts.

Scene in Berlin logo
Image: DW

Small is in, and mono-topical is successful when it comes to bookstores in Berlin. Bookstores? Does anyone still actually buy books in a real store? Well, Berlin is always the exception to the rule.

In the past years, large, commercial bookstore chains have consistently dominated the book market with their huge selection and online offers, pushing many small, independent book store owners out of business. However, the current omnipresent economic woes have taken a bite from big guys' profits - and perhaps made book-buyers rethink where they purchase their literature.

In Berlin, a kind of anti-trend is gaining force: the rise of the small bookstore. Even in this time of continual financial madness.

According to the Book Sellers Union of Berlin-Brandenburg, any profits made by the industry this year, was made by the "little guys" - small businesses which are not going under, but proliferating and getting more specific and sophisticated with each new opening. In Berlin there are more bookstores per capita than any other German city, which should make it harder to survive, but it's the same as the phenomenon that more cafes on one street make business better for all. Apparently, everyone benefits when there are more small, alternative, specialized book shops.

A tower of books outside of a store in Kreuzberg, Berlin
Eye-catching advertising methods, like this wintery tower of books, help draw in Berlin's readersImage: picture-alliance/dpa

By bookworms, for bookworms

The stores making it in Berlin these days are all very unique. So behind each store, you will usually find a one-of-a-kind - often eccentric - Berlin character running the joint. The key to success here is finding the right niche, or in the case of some stores, stubbornly holding onto your personal literary preference and style of running a store, until your customer base finds you.

An example of these only-in-Berlin stores is one in the Kreuzberg district that sells only crime thrillers. Nothing else. And don't expect to find Dan Brown among the selection of tens of thousands of books. The owner, Christian Koch, only sells books he has read himself and can personally recommend. Koch started as an intern at the store when it was founded 16 years ago and eventually bought out the former owner.

Other stores focus on biographical works of all sorts, or carry only English-language books. Just last month a new store with just Polish books opened in my boyfriend's neighborhood. It looks more like a comfy café, equipped with sofas and rugs. I don't know any Poles in the neighborhood - but perhaps they will come now.

Books stacked up, facing several directions
For struggling booksellers in the capital, one strategy seems to work: Find a nicheImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The book whisperer

Recently, I heard about a woman running a mobile bookstore. She has become something of an icon, and is welcome quirky guest in upscale restaurants heavily frequented by tourists. She tours around with a cart full of books and approaches people as they are enjoying their meals, asking if she might engage them in literary discussion which will hopefully climax in them buying a few hard covers. How she managed to get the restaurant owners to let her accost customers - and successfully sell her wares - is a mystery to me.

I'm told this woman is a bit of a fortune-teller too. She looks at the people, listens a bit and pulls out the books she is sure will interest them. And, word has it, she is usually on the mark. They go home with a great Berlin story to tell, and books that might actually read and enjoy, and she gets to pay her rent with her chutzpah and love of literature. Yes, another marvelous, only-in-Berlin occurrence.

Author: Leah McDonnell
Editor: Kate Bowen