Sunday, May 29, 2011

Borges the bookstore

At the end of last week, I attended two literary events at a brand new bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in St. Petersburg--a bookstore with a telling name, "Borges." Unlike San Francisco and most other cities in the United States, St. Petersburg is experiencing something of a bookstore boom: in the fall, I presented my collection of stories at a brand new location of a local chain, Bookvoed. Now, Borges opened a block away from Bookvoed. A few more blocks away, there's a bookstore called "Poryadok Slov" -- "Word Order," selling "intellectual literature." This bookstore opened in January 2010, and I haven't had a chance to check it out. Perhaps this is because they (and the events they book) focus on non-fiction and film.

Browsing bookshelves on my first visit to Borges, I overheard a conversation between another customer and the administrator. The customer wondered why the store's inventory has changed so dramatically, and the administrator was confused because the store had only been open for two weeks. Eventually, she realized the source of confusion: Borges opened in the space previously occupied by an LGBT store "Indigo" (the term I overheard was: "the bookstore for sexual minorities"). Indigo is still in business, although they moved to a different location--the other part of Nevsky, closer to Vosstaniya. As far as I know, Indigo is the only store in the city targeted directly toward the LGBT community. When I started asking people about it, it turned out that some of my friends had heard of it--Indigo advertised on Nevsky as an Internet hot spot. They also sold (and probably continue to sell) a good amount of English-language books (hard to find in St. Petersburg), Russian-language books from smaller publishers, and stocked cute t-shirts and underwear.

Unlike Indigo, Borges does not (yet?) advertise on Nevsky (the store, although it has a Nevsky address, is located deep inside a courtyard, and is not visible from the street). Perhaps they advertise in other ways; as far as I know, they only advertise to the literary community. Does this mean that the literary community in this city is vibrant and wealthy enough to carry one more bookstore? I wonder. The two events I went to were attended both nights by many of the same people and certainly not all of them were buying books. I am really hoping this bookstore has a long-term business strategy that will enable them to prosper for years to come--it's a cute little space, selling excellent books, and friendly to the local authors. Yay!!

The first event I attended was dedicated to Phillip Roth. Two of his translators to Russian led the debate about the significance of the International Booker Prize he recently won. Also, one of his translators, Vera Kobets, has just released a book of short stories, and so the event was also meant to mark the publication of her book. The second event was dedicated to the publication of a new anthology that contains the work of Andrei Bely Prize laureates. The prize committee and a few of the current and past laureates were in attendance and talked about the future of the prize, the future of literature, and the future of the book. The consensus here is divided, some people think that most interesting stuff these days happens on the Internet, while others think that Internet is inundated by trash and that the only books worth reading are published in paper form. Interestingly enough, nobody mentioned ebook readers -- for one reason or another, they are not making as huge of an impact on book publishing here (yet?). One philosopher (with a large local following) argued that copyright in the contemporary world is becoming meaningless, that works are created by consortium of people and no longer by an individual, and that we're witnessing the complete breakdown and end of an era of individual authorship.

One thing I found interesting during both events is that both the authors and the audience were reluctant when it came to reading from the books. During the second event (the anthology release party), nobody read from the book at all and one of the authors even said "I don't want to bore everyone." During the first event, Vera Kobets did read a short-short (a tiny two page story), but also apologized in advance about reading in general and about the quality of this particular story (she said that its inadequacies are quite blatant but hoped that the audience might find this interesting). I bought both books, and have started reading Kobets's work over the weekend -- I'm enjoying it a great deal. The quality of the prose is impressive, there is a lot of character depth, a large range of subject matter. It's as good of a book as any I've been reading lately in Russian, and yet I wouldn't have ever thought so from the way it was presented. She (and everyone else who spoke about the book, including the man who wrote the intro) spoke about it as a slight but worthy effort of an insignificant woman-writer with a lyrical, poetic style (as opposed to Rothian, detail-oriented and dry). It seemed to me as though the author and her editors were too shy, too reticent, too concerned about the opinion of their peers to speak well of the book (to praise? never!). I registered this as a major cultural difference from the San Francisco lit scene.

Another cultural difference--attitude to cell phones. Cell phones rang throughout both literary evenings; some people even picked up the phone and held brief telephone conversations during the talks. In a room the size of an urban living room, this affected everyone's ability to concentrate on the authors--and yet nobody (except me) seemed to be disturbed or bothered by it. At one point, even one of the speakers got a phone call. Instead of muting his phone and apologizing (what I with my American attitude toward cell phones would've expected), he picked up the call and yelled into the receiver: "Call me back, I'm at a bookstore, in the middle of a speech!" Then, I started to wonder whether this kind of attitude was possible because everyone in the room knew each other quite well and were like family to one another. Considering the fact that I, too, were slightly acquainted with a few of the audience members, I think this is not a bad theory. A book event at a store is not necessarily all that different from a family gathering in a large communal kitchen or a living room. But can one family really sustain even a living-room sized bookstore? Luckily, I've brought my aunt to the first event, and they've now got her to advertise on their behalf.


  1. interesting about the (lack of) prevalence of ebook readers. if we are able to predict the progression in technology in Russia, we can make a fortune. Invest heavily in tablet technology and sell short bookstores :(

    i wonder why they named the store after Borges - perhaps the labyrinthian difficulty in finding the entrance.

  2. Laughing about you and your American attitude re: cell phones....

    it is a pet peeve and yet I find myself letting technology intrude into family moments all the time.

    Borges is a great name for a bookstore

  3. The name comes with two more stories. The store has a very funky logo, where the name "Borges" is spelled out in Greek letters, but the letters are chosen not for the way they sound, but for the way they look--the closest to their Russian equivalents. So people who know Greek tell me the name reads something like "Dsrsic."

    The store is affiliated with a medium-sized publishing house, and so displays very prominently the new collected works of Borges published by the publishing house. Except the publisher's print shop made an error: they published volume IV before volume III, and volume III is still not available. So, when you enter the store, you see these books: Borges (or Dsrsic) I, II, IV :)